A searching new collection from America’s philosopher-poet
John Koethe, in his tenth volume of poetry, investigates the capricious nature of everyday life, “the late-night jazz, great sex and all / The human s**t defining what we are.” His poems—always dynamic and in process, never static or complete—luxuriate in the questions that punctuate the most humdrum of routines, rendering a robust portrait of an individual: complicated, quotidian, and resounding with truth. The Swimmer argues that this “energizes everything”: life’s trivialities, surprises, and disappointments, and the “terrible feeling of being just about to fall.”
Philosopher-poet Koethe (ROTC Kills) "meanders on/ Like a country road" through the minutes and details of daily life in his 10th collection of verse: "I dwell instead/ On minutiae, on little highs defining days/ In need of definition." His poems demonstrate particular fascinations with age, friendship, the narrative self, mathematics, and music, among other themes. Koethe continues to show the deft technical touch that has brought him such renown, but too often his poems feel comfortable and easy, like they have little at stake or are slightly out of touch with the politics and movements of the present. Other poems offer lines that feel overly clever, as if the poet is more concerned with amusing himself than engaging his reader in new ways of thinking: "I'm witness to my life, but as for/ Participating in it, I'll take the Fifth." Yet Koethe's moments of self-reflexivity also present insight into his process ("I like to get drunk and I like to write"), including the creation of his speakers: "I (whichever I this is) saw Follies last year." What feel like the book's shortcomings, however, may be coping mechanisms for dealing with the anxiety of mortality. Koethe's poems are able to offer the kind of idiosyncratic musings that will keep the reader thinking beyond the confines of the page: "The world never ends what ends are explanations of the way it is."