After All

John Koethe - 1945-

“After all,” that too might be possible . . .
—John Ashbery

It isn’t too late, but for what I’m not sure.
Though I live for possibility, I loathe unbridled
Speculation, let alone those vague attempts
At self-exploration that become days wasted
Trying out the various modes of being:
The ecstatic mode, which celebrates the world, a high
That fades into an old idea; the contemplative,
Which says, So what? and leaves it there;
The skeptical, a way of being in the world
Without accepting it (whatever that might mean).
They’re all poses, adequate to different ends
And certain ages, none of them conclusive
Or sufficient to the day. I find myself surprised
By my indifference to what happens next:
You’d think that after almost seventy years of waiting
For the figure in the carpet to emerge I’d feel a sense of
Urgency about the future, rather than dismissing it
As another pretext for more idle speculation.
I’m happy, but I have a pessimistic cast of mind.
I like to generalize, but realize it’s pointless,
Since everything is there to see. I love remembering
For its own sake and the feel of passing time
It generates, which lends it meaning and endows it
With a private sense of purpose—as though every life
Were a long effort to salvage something of its past,
An effort bound to fail in the long run, though it comes
With a self-defeating guarantee: the evaporating
Air of recognition that lingers around a name
Or rises from a page from time to time; or the nothing
Waiting at the end of age; whichever comes last.

More by John Koethe

A Perfume

There were mice, and even
Smaller creatures holed up in the rafters.
One would raise its thumb, or frown,
And suddenly the clouds would part, and the whole
Fantastic contraption come tumbling down.

And the arcade of forgotten things
Closed in the winter, and the roller coaster
Stood empty as the visitors sped away
Down a highway that passed by an old warehouse
Full of boxes of spools and spoons. 

I wonder if these small mythologies,
Whose only excuse for existing is to maintain us
In our miniscule way of life,
Might possibly be true? And even if they were,
Would it be right? Go find the moon

And seal it in the envelope of night.
The stars are like a distant dust
And what the giants left lies hidden in full view.
Brush your hair. Wipe the blood from your shoes.
Sit back and watch the firedance begin.
--So the rain falls in place,

The playground by the school is overrun with weeds
And we live our stories, filling up our lives
With souvenirs of the abandoned
Factory we have lingered in too long.

Hackett Avenue


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 began to seem quaint
And I began to feel myself a victim of coincidence,
Inhabiting a film whose real title was my name --
Inhabiting a realm of fabulous constructions
Made entirely of words, all words
I should have known, and should have connected
Until they meant whatever I might mean.
But they're just fragments really,
No more than that.


                 A coast away,
And then across an ocean fifty years away,
I felt an ashen figure gliding through the leaves
-- Bewitchment of intelligence by leaves -- 
A body floating clothed, facedown,
A not-so-old philosopher dying in his bed
-- At least I thought I felt those things.
But then the line went dead
And I was back here in the cave, another ghost
Inhabiting the fourth part of the soul
And waiting, and still waiting, for the sun to come up.
Tell them I've had a wonderful life.
Tell Mr. DeMille I'm ready for my close-up.

Sally's Hair

It's like living in a light bulb, with the leaves
Like filaments and the sky a shell of thin, transparent glass
Enclosing the late heaven of a summer day, a canopy
Of incandescent blue above the dappled sunlight golden on the grass.

I took the train back from Poughkeepsie to New York
And in the Port Authority, there at the Suburban Transit window,
She asked, "Is this the bus to Princeton?"—which it was.
"Do you know Geoffrey Love?" I said I did. She had the blondest hair,

Which fell across her shoulders, and a dress of almost phosphorescent blue.
She liked Ayn Rand. We went down to the Village for a drink,
Where I contrived to miss the last bus to New Jersey, and at 3 a.m. we
Walked around and found a cheap hotel I hadn't enough money for

And fooled around on its dilapidated couch. An early morning bus
(She'd come to see her brother), dinner plans and missed connections

And a message on his door about the Jersey shore. Next day
A summer dormitory room, my roommates gone: "Are you," she asked,

"A hedonist?" I guessed so. Then she had to catch her plane.
Sally—Sally Roche. She called that night from Florida,
And then I never heard from her again. I wonder where she is now,
Who she is now. That was thirty-seven years ago.

And I'm too old to be surprised again. The days are open,
Life conceals no depths, no mysteries, the sky is everywhere,
The leaves are all ablaze with light, the blond light
Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally's hair.