Book Review: The Swimmer
by John Koethe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
The Swimmer is the tenth slim volume of poetry from John Koethe, whose 1973 volume Domes won him the Frank O’Hara Award for Poetry and who in these 75 pages presents poem after poem of a type O’Hara, who died at age 40, never lived long enough to write. Koethe is 70; these verses were written on the threshold of old age, which now and persistently feels like alien territory for poets.
The particular awareness of 70 is thorny enough even for ordinary folk; the enfencing limitations, the private announcements of wear, the sure, unwanted knowledge that each remaining year will be thinner than the one before – the consignment of heartiness to special occasions, long of both anticipation and recovery. For the keener heart of a poet, the cold certainty that life’s summer is over and won’t come again is a steeper thing, usually provoking either “late style” lunacy or the peremptory abandonment of the Muse.
Koethe is stout enough to look at it straight on, despite “this terrifying feeling of contingency” that fans open and closed in virtually every poem in The Swimmer. There are no halos of pale light in these pages, but over and over there is the flinty acknowledgment of anticlimax, as in “The Uninvolved Narrator”:
Sometimes it touches on the truth, now and then
It sings, but for them most part it meanders on
Like a country road, leading not to some horror
But to the stupefying banality at the heart of things.
This preoccupation will make most of these poems rough sledding for the middle-aged and blankly incomprehensible to the young, but curiously satchel-worthy for readers poised on the same rung as Koethe, readers who’ll have an instant sympathy for the borderline whining of verses like “The Long Dissolve” with the cinematic images of end titles:
The scenes that had immured me silently dissolved
As the credits unrolled, leaving an almost empty screen
And a highway leading somewhere off the page.
I tried to picture anywhere but here, a place
Beyond the indifference and infirmities of age,
But there was nothing, nothing I could see.
I felt elated for a moment, and complete.
But then I knew it was where I had to go.
And yet, there’s vigor and defiant life glinting underneath all these autumn leaves. The funeral note is the predominant one, but often – especially in the book’s longer poems (when our poet’s muscles work long enough to limber up, touch on the truth, and sing? It’s my guess) – something of the blunt power of Koethe’s earlier work pokes through, as in The Swimmer‘s best piece, “Chappaquiddick,” which slides confidently across a brace of fast-moving decades but gives no quarter and sometimes very nearly reverts to notes of quiet triumph:
Silver in the sun, I thought about Milwaukee and Detroit
And how they’re nobody’s fault, because the question reaches back
To the poem of the past, and the dying fall of one last ode
To the Confederate dead, resting in victory beneath the cypress trees.
The Swimmer will look a bit odd if John Koethe lives to a hale and healthy 90 and keeps writing the whole time. Here’s hoping it happens even so.