John Koethe's Sally's Hair

HarperCollins, $24.95 (cloth)


Although his career spans nearly 40 years, it is only recently, with the much-praised collections Falling Water (1997), The Constructor (1999), and North Point North: New and Selected Poems (2002), that John Koethe’s work has begun to receive wider recognition. Even readers unfamiliar with Koethe will appreciate his new collection, Sally’s Hair, for its uneasy pairing of the immediate with the remote, the quotidian with the sublime, and the banal with the beautiful. They will also notice psychological inquiries pursued with startling depth beneath neutral, discursive surfaces composed of shifting registers of speech.

As critics have trained their sights on Koethe, they have focused on his relation to John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, and Romanticism, and they have sometimes labeled him a Wordsworthian. To this we can add Proustian, since his long poems—including the title poem and another called, appropriately, “Proust”—frequently present inner journeys that wind back into memory. Yet Koethe is skeptical about the past: his reconnaissance expeditions produce vacant stares as often as epiphanies, and they recollect the past in states more troubled than tranquil. Koethe’s inquiry into the nature of consciousness is intense and relentless, and perhaps for that very reason it often leads to “a blank space,” “an inhuman world / Indifferent to desire,” a vision where “nothing seemed revealed,” unless it is “the indifferent truth that lies behind the seeming.”

The dream of inquiry is to pierce the veil, to see to the bottom of things, to achieve an understanding that is if not quite absolute then at least adequate. Koethe has an old-time faith in the power of literature to achieve this dream, and there are flashes in his poetry that make us feel for a moment that such revelations are possible. Still, the prevailing note of this book is doleful:

Like a vain man practicing a vain art
Born out of failure—not the grand
Of the Will or the Imagination,

But on a more human scale: what
What happened to the incidental life
You try to make up, though it falls apart?

Each year I come again to where I am. These are the opening lines of “The Unlasting,” the book’s long central poem, a masterpiece that rivals Schuyler’s “The Day of the Poem” and which, like it, spans the day of its own writing. Reflecting the passage of thought in time, the poem’s continuously looping eddies return the poet, 240 lines later, to

An odd place, yet one I must have
Long ago, like a promise time fulfills
In passing, that comes too late,
      that leaves me

Floating in the air between a fleeting
Glimpse of nothing and the common
That lay waiting for me beyond the hills.

Along the way there are moments of doubt (“I feel like someone waiting to begin / A story without a real ending”) and dismissal (“That what I felt once I might feel again / —A fallacy completely obvious”), ringing assertions (“time . . . / Is impotent against the will of art”) and illuminations (“an afternoon that seems a vast / Cathedral brimming with an earthly light”). Any given mood slides into its opposite, now verging on magic and mystery, now yielding to banality and boredom, settling for a chastened bemusement:

There is an air of unreality
About this place, as though I looked at it
Through someone else’s eyes. And what
      I see

Is nothing but an ordinary day
Transformed, unlike all those I’ve known
And so strange. And I think it’s

These two stanzas are quintessential Koethe, with their shifts and feints and odd juxtapositions under surface simplicities. “Nothing but an ordinary day / Transformed” sounds plain enough, but what is an ordinary day that has been transformed and yet remains ordinary? With the hovering, contentious meanings of that final, flat declaration, Koethe couches his philosophizing in plain, almost prosaic language, so lacking in grace notes that some readers will hardly hear it as poetry.

Yet Koethe’s language can be beautiful in its austere and unassuming way. Koethe is continually testing one of his most important and distinctive hypotheses: that prosaic, propositional language can be the stuff of poetry quite as much as the genre’s traditional material. If he succeeds, it is not simply because one tolerates such chewy, torturous expositions as these lines (from “A Tulip Tree”)—

Why should the myth of naturalness
      hold sway, the cult of
Authenticity prevail when accident and
Can both be equally untrue to what we
      feel and mean?

—but because they are so often leavened by an intimate, conversational tone whose credibility compensates for an absence of drama, or because Koethe summons the nuances that swim beneath the surface of bland diction in a way that recalls the layering of a film’s soundtrack. If we stay to see the credits, we notice songs listed that we don’t recall hearing, and listening to Koethe is a matter of hearing those songs, their samplings, their savor and snap, their pop ambiance, their corniness. In “Eros and the Everyday,” a title more fit for a scholarly essay than for a poem, we read, “What is this thing that feels at once so nebulous / And so complete, living from day to day / Unmindful of itself, oblivious”—lines that would seem dry and stuffy except that beneath them we hear a hint of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” It is this counterpoint of the austere and the sentimental, of the dour philosopher and the popular songwriter, that encourages Koethe to slip in details that are intimate and self-consciously trivial (“The dinner, the DVD from Netflix, / The drink before I go to sleep”). But such low-key reportage is quite the opposite of the dramatized self-assertion we find in Confessional poetry. Koethe offers the self as a clinical case-study, suggesting that most of our lives are exactly this ordinary and proposing that any life, looked at as directly as possible, illuminates the universal life, the experience of being a conscious human—an experience less distinctive than we care to think, and doomed to fade into oblivion.

Though Koethe is not particularly old as poets go, his poetry is by now a poetry of aging, for which a Proustian lens comes in handy: the more we age, the more past we have to sift through, and there is always a madeleine—a snatch of music, a fragrance, a taste—to dredge it up. Koethe’s madeleine is a spill of light on a bright summer day that, in the title poem, recalls the blond hair of a girl named Sally and a youthful dalliance. Other promptings carry him back to his parents’ home in California (“The Middle of Experience”), his youth as a high-school track star (“21.1”), and his days as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard (“16A:”). Following these leads produces poems that are more entertaining—and amusing—than many in his earlier books. They are also more topical, as the poet turns his attention to the war in Iraq and the economic impact of Wal-Mart, among other subjects.

But the best poems in Sally’s Hair are the meditative, meandering excursions for which Koethe is known, and the most important of these is the concluding poem, “Hamlet” (which first appeared in these pages), in which the dream of personal ambition modulates into the dream of scientific or mathematical breakthrough, of a theory that provides a new explanation of reality, although it may be only “a naïve / fantasy of knowledge.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in this poem’s reading, casts doubt on the assumption that we are capable of planning our lives, let alone achieving our dreams, leading the poet to fear that his Proustian quest to discover the logic of a recollected life is equally doomed. By the poem’s end, Koethe is weighing his own accomplishments, asking where his life has brought him, finding “nothing tangible to see.” But because his enterprise is not over—more poems wait in the wings—he concludes, “And so I / Bide my time,” repeating a theme introduced 80 pages earlier, at the end of the book’s second poem:

I came here for the view, and what is
      there to see?
The place is still a place in progress
And the days have the feeling of fiction,
      of pages
Blank with anticipation, biding their time,
And ever approaching the chapter in the
Where it ends, and my heart is waiting.

The end of the story is not likely to be happy, not when it comes in the present, with its “Disappointment all the deeper that the / Hope was for a thing I knew to be unreal” (from “This Morning”); nor in the past, which the philosopher recalls as full of “Idiotic questions / That fascinated once / And now seem frivolous” (from “In the Dark”); nor in what we like to think of as the future, where “by the time we / Glimpse the possibility of changing it’s already happened” (from “Hamlet”). But while these snippets can sound merely gloomy, Koethe’s book as a whole is strangely fulfilling, as Aristotle proposed tragedy should be, even if here, as in Hamlet, the wrecks of the hero’s hopes and dreams lie scattered about the stage. Sally’s Hair is in fact a highly readable book, appealing in its elusive and somewhat eerie blend of the personal and impersonal, and compelling in the rigor of its inquiry into the human condition.

Rigorous though it may be, it is the inquiry of a poet, not a scientist (which Koethe meant to be) or a philosopher (which Koethe is). Philosophical notions and vocabularies are common in poetry—Wallace Stevens has a philosophical air about him, and T.S. Eliot manages to sound like a philosopher in Four Quartets—but Koethe is the real thing, a professional philosopher who has published important volumes on epistemology and Wittgenstein. But while it is useful to know this about Koethe, it does not tell us how to read his poetry. There are moments when Koethe, waxing abstract, seems philosophical in the formal sense, as he does in these lines from “A Tulip Tree”: “Call it a place of freedom, / But its beauty is the beauty of the question / Of a different life . . .” But even with the occasional suggestion of a severe, Wittgensteinian restriction on the use and meaning of words, Koethe’s poetry is ultimately lyrical, and its claim on us comes not from philosophy’s dream of precision but from the common human dream that our lives make some kind of sense. What Koethe offers is not ideas but a weave of reflection, emotion, and music; what he creates is art—a bleak, harrowing art in all it chooses to confront, but one whose rituals and repetitions contain the hope of renewal.