This is Lagos

John Koethe - 1945-
             . . . 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 past the floating slums
And sawmills and the steaming garbage dumps, the auto yards
Still burning with spilled fuel and to your final destination
At the end of a long tracking shot, all of it on fire—
You come face-to-face with hell: the pandemonium 
Of history's ultimate bazaar, a breathing mass
Whose cells are stalls crammed full of spare parts, 
Chains, detergents, DVDs; where a continuous cacophony
Of yells and radios and motorcycles clogs the air.
They arrive from everywhere, attracted by the promise
Of mere possibility, by the longing for a different kind of day
Here in the city of scams, by a hope that quickly comes to nothing.
To some it's a new paradigm, "an announcement of the future"
Where disorder leads to unexpected patterns, unimagined opportunities
That mutate, blossom, and evolve. To others it's the face of despair.
These are the parameters of life, a life doled out in quarters, 
In the new, postmodern state of nature: garbage and ground plastic
And no place to shit or sleep; machetes, guns, and e-mails
Sent around the world from Internet cafés; violence and chaos
And a self-effacing sprawl that simply makes no sense
When seen from ground zero, yet exhibits an abstract beauty 
When seen from the air—which is to say, not seen at all.

Across the ocean and a century away a culture died.
The facts behind the Crow's whole way of life—the sense 
Of who and what they were, their forms of excellence and bravery
And honor—all dissolved, and their hearts "fell to the ground,
And they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened"
(Plenty Coups), meaning nothing they could do made any sense, 
Beyond the fact of biological survival. It's easy to forget
How much of ordinary life, of what we value, long for, and recall—
Ambition, admiration, even poetry—rests on things we take for granted,
And how fragile those things are. "I am trying to live a life I do not understand,"
A woman said, when the buffalo and the coups they underwrote were gone.
They could have tried to cope. Instead they found their solace
In an indeterminate hope, a hope for a future they couldn't yet imagine,
Where their ways of life might somehow reemerge in forms
Of which they couldn't yet conceive, or even begin to understand.
It was a dream of a different life, a life beyond the reservation
Without any tangible location, predicated on a new idea of the good
With no idea of what it was, or what achieving it might mean—
Like listening to a song with no sound, or drawing an imaginary line
In the imaginary sand in an imaginary world without boundaries.

It feels compelling, and I even think it's true. But these are things
I've only read about in magazines and book reviews, and not experienced,
Which was Plato's point—that poets don't know what they talk about.
It doesn't matter though, for most of what we think of as our lives
Is lived in the imagination, like the Crows's inchoate hope, or the fantasies
Of those who leave a village in the country for the city in the smoke. 
And when I look in my imagination for the future, it isn't hope and restoration
That I find but smoldering tires and con men in a world of megacities
And oil fields, where too much has been annexed to be restored.
I have the luxury of an individual life that has its own trajectory and scope
When taken on its terms—the terms I chose—however unimportant it might seem
From the vantage point of history or the future. What scares me is the thought
That in a world that isn't far away this quaint ideal of the personal 
Is going to disappear, dissolving in those vast, impersonal calculations
Through which money, the ultimate abstraction, renders each life meaningless, 
By rendering the forms of life that make it seem significant impossible. 
Face me I face you: packed into rooms with concrete beds
And not a trace of privacy, subsisting on contaminated water, luck, 
And palm-wine gin, with lungs scarred from the burning air, 
These are the urban destitute, the victims of a gospel of prosperity
Untouched by irony or nostalgia—for how can you discover
What you haven't felt, or feel the loss of things you've never known?
I write because I can: talking to myself, composing poems
And wondering what you'll make of them; shoring them
Against the day our minor ways of life have finally disappeared
And we're not even ghosts. Meanwhile life regresses
Towards the future, death by death. You to whom I write, 
Or wish that I could write long after my own death, 
When it's too late to talk to you about the world you live in, 
This is the world you live in: This is Lagos.

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.