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About this Poem 

"I was reading an interesting book called Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson around the same time I saw a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies on Broadway. My way of writing is basically associative, and Hemingway and Sondheim's character Sally seemed to me pathetic and heartbreaking in different ways, and I would up putting them together in this poem. —John Koethe

E.H.

John Koethe, 1945

Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor,
Not going left, not going right.


—Stephen Sondheim



I like to get drunk and I like to write.
I search for ways in and can’t find them,
But that doesn’t mean they’re not there. What isn’t
There is the life between the words, the life that existed
Beyond the words, the life I don’t have anymore.
In Michigan the feelings soaked the page,
Yet now they seem diminished in the telling
And no longer in our time, no longer of our place,
But in another country, one of an imagination
Anchored in a style; no longer in the stream
Or swamp, where the fishing was tragic.

I (whichever I this is) saw Follies last year.
The Weismann Girls come back to stand for what they were
And aren’t anymore, in a theatre slated for demolition.
Sally is a prisoner of her rage and her imagination,
Pining for the magic of what might have been
Until the spell breaks, leaving her alone on the stage
Amid the shards of her illusions. As she looks around
For what she is, all she can find is her age:
“I’m forty-nine. That’s all I am.”

Why do I get so angry? Why do I assume
The characters I love, the characters I love and hate?
There’s a corruption from which I’ve never recovered
That diminishes me each day, until I can’t tell which I am
Anymore, the mask or the face. The boat in Havana:
Last time was the last time. The stirring begins each night
And continues through the day here in a home that isn’t home,
With Michigan far away, the finca far away, alone
In the vestibule in the early morning light, imagining
The feeling of cool steel against my forehead
And the sound of two drawers slamming.
I’m sixty-two. That’s all I am.

Copyright © 2013 by John Koethe. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on September 20, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Copyright © 2013 by John Koethe. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on September 20, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

John Koethe

John Koethe

Born in 1945, John Koethe is the author of several collections of poetry, including Falling Water, which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award

by this poet

poem
             . . . hope would be hope for the wrong thing

                                                                  —T. S. Eliot


Instead of the usual welcoming sign to greet you
There's the brute statement: This is Lagos.
If you make it to the island—if you make your way
Across the bridge and
poem

     . . . and the holocaust was complete.
                  
                                                          —The Great Gatsby


Like a question in a dream
Whose answer lies across the water
In a green light of hope, in a slow scream
Beginning with a single breath
Exhaled in a dining room
poem
I used to like connections:
Leaves floating on the water
Like faces floating on the surface of a dream,
On the surface of a swimming pool
Once the holocaust was complete.
And then I passed through stages of belief
And unbelief, desire and restraint.
I found myself repeating certain themes
Ad interim, until they