North Point North

By John Koethe b. 1945 John Koethe
I

In these I find my calling:
In the shower, in the mirror, in unconscious   
Hours spent staring at a screen
At artifacts complete unto themselves.   
I think of them as self-sufficient worlds   
Where I can sojourn for a while,
Then wake to find the clouds dispersing   
And the sidewalks steaming with the
Rain that must have fallen while I stayed inside.   
The sun is shining, and the quiet   
Doubts are answered with more doubts,   
For as the years begin to mirror one another   
And the diary in the brain implodes,   
What filters through the theories on the page   
Is a kind of settledness, an equilibrium
Between the life I have and what time seemed to hold—
These rooms, these poems, these ordinary streets
That spring to life each summer in an intricate construction
Blending failed hopes and present happiness—
Which from the outside seems like self-deception.

There is no end to these reflections,
To their measured music with its dying fall   
Wherein the heart and what it seeks are reconciled.   
I live them, and as though in gratitude
They shape my days, from morning with its sweetest smile   
Until the hour when sleep blows out the candle.   
Between, the present falls away,
And for a while the old romance resumes,   
Familiar but unrecognized, an undiscovered place   
Concealed within the confines of this room,
That seems at once a form of feeling and a state of grace   
Prepared for me, written in my name
Against the time when time has finally merged
These commonplace surroundings with what lies behind the veil—
Leaving behind at least a version of the truth   
Composed of what I felt and what I saw outside my window   
On a summer morning; melding sound and sense,   
A music and a mood, together in a hesitant embrace   
That makes them equal at the end.


       II

There may be nothing for a poem to change   
But an atmosphere: conventional or strange,   
Its meaning is enclosed by the perception   
—Better, by the misperception—
Of what time held and what the future knew;   
Which is to say this very moment.
And yet the promise of a distant
Purpose is what makes each moment new.

There may be nothing for the soul to say   
In its defense, except to describe the way   
It came to find itself at the impasse
Morning reveals in the glass—
The road that led away from home to here,   
That began in wonderment and hope,   
But that ended in the long slope
Down to loneliness and the fear of fear.

The casuistry is all in the event,
Contingent on what someone might have meant   
Or might still mean. What feels most frightening   
Is the thought that when the lightning
Has subsided, and the clearing sky
Appears at last above the stage
To mark the only end of age,
That God, that distant and unseeing eye,

Would see that none of this had ever been:   
That none of it, apparent or unseen,
Was ever real, and all the private words,   
Which seemed to fill the air like birds
Exploding from the brush, were merely sounds   
Without significance or sense,
Inert and dead beneath the dense
Expanse of the earth in its impassive rounds.

There may be no rejoinder to that thought.
There may be nothing that one could have sought   
That might have lent the search significance,   
Or even a kind of coherence.
Perhaps. Yet closer to me than the grandeur   
Of the vast and the uncreated
Is the calm of this belated
Moment in its transitory splendor.


       III

Someone asked about the aura of regret
And disappointment that surrounds these poems,   
About the private facts those feelings might conceal,   
And what their source was in my life.

I said that none of it was personal,
That as lives go my own life was a settled one,   
Comprising both successes and misfortunes, the successes   
Not especially striking, the misfortunes small.

And yet the question is a real one,
And not for me alone, though certainly for me.   
For even if, as Wittgenstein once claimed,   
That while the facts may stay the same

And what is true of one is true of both,
The happy and unhappy man inhabit different worlds,   
One still would want to know which world this is,   
And how that other one could seem so close.

So much of how life feels lies in the phrasing,
In the way a thought starts, then turns back upon itself   
Until its question hangs unanswered in the breeze.   
Perhaps the sadness is a way of seeming free,

Of denying what can change or disappear,   
Of tearing free from circumstance,
As though the soul could only speak out from the   
Safety of some private chamber in the air.

Let me try once more. I think the saddest moments   
Are the ones that also seem most beautiful,   
For the nature of a moment is to fade,
Leaving everything unaltered, and the landscape

Where the light fell as it was before.
And time makes poetry from what it takes away,   
And the measure of experience
Is not that it be real, but that it last,

And what one knows is simply what one knew,   
And what I want is simply what I had.
These are the premises that structure what I feel,   
The axioms that govern my imagination,

And beneath them lies the fear—
Not the fear of the unknown, but the fear of growing old   
Unchanged, of looking in the mirror
At a future that repeats itself ad infinitum.

It could be otherwise so easily.
The transience that lectures so insistently of loss   
Could speak as clearly of an openness renewed,   
A life made sweeter by its changing;

And the shadows of the past
Could seem a shade where one could linger for a while   
Before returning to the world, and moving on.   
The way would be the same in either case,

Extending for an unknown span of years
Experienced from two perspectives, a familiar course   
Accessible to all, yet narrowing,
As the journey nears its end, to one.

The difference isn’t in the details
Or the destination, but in how things feel along the road:   
The secret of the quest lies all around me,
While what lurks below the surface is another story,

One of no more consequence or import than the last.   
What matters isn’t what one chances to believe,   
But the force of one’s attachments,
And instead of looking for an answer in a dream

Set aside the question, let the songs continue   
Going through the motions of the days
And waking every morning to this single world,   
Whether in regret, or in celebration.


       IV

Each day begins as yesterday began:   
A cat in silhouette in the dim light   
Of what the morning holds—
Breakfast and The New York Times, a man
Taking a shower, a poem taking flight
As a state of mind unfolds   
So unpredictably.
Through the hot summer air   
I walk to a building where
I give a lecture on philosophy

In the strict sense; then go home to the cat.   
A narrow life; or put another way,
A life whose facts can all
Be written on a page, the narrow format   
Of this tiny novel of a day,
Ulysses written small,
A diary so deep
Its rhythms seem unreal:
A solitary meal.
Some records or a movie. And then sleep.


       V

At the ending of the remake of The Thing
Kurt Russell and one other guy
Are all that’s left of what had been the crew
Of an Antarctic outpost. Some horrifying presence   
—Some protean thing—establishes itself
Inside the person of an ordinary man
And then, without a warning, erupts in devastation.   
The two survivors eye each other slowly,
Neither knowing whether one of them
Still holds the horror. “What do we do now?”
The second asks, and Russell says,
“Let’s see what happens,” and the movie ends.

“Horror” is too strong, but substitute the fear
I spoke about before, and the scene is apt.
I don’t know, as no one really knows,
What might lie waiting in the years to come,
But sometimes when the question touches me I feel afraid—
Not of age, but an age that seems a prolongation of this afternoon,   
That looks ahead, and looks instead into itself.
This is the fear that draws me back inside:
That this is all there is, that what I hold so easily
Will vanish soon, and nothing like it will be given me again.   
The days will linger and the nights rehearse themselves   
Until the secret of my life has finally emerged—
Not in devastation, but in a long decline
That leads at least as surely to a single end.

And then I turn away and see the sky
That soars above the streets of North Point North,   
Reducing everyone to anonymity, an anonymity
In which I find a kind of possibility, a kind of freedom   
As the world—the only world—rolls on its way,
Oblivious to anything I might say, or that might happen in a poem.   
A poem can seize and hold a moment fast, yet it can   
Limit what there is to feel, and stake a distance from the world.   
The neighborhood around me wakes each day to lives   
No different than my own, lives harboring the same ambitions   
And regrets, but living on the humbler stuff of happiness.   
The disappointments come and go; what stays   
Is part of an abiding presence, human and serene.
The houses wait unquestioning in the light
Of an approaching summer evening, while a vast   
Contentment answers from the air.
I think I know where this is going to end,   
But still my pleasure is to wait—
Not wait, perhaps, for anything within,
But for what lies outside. Let’s see what happens.

John Koethe, “North Point North” from North Point North: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002 by John Koethe. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: North Point North: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2002)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet John Koethe b. 1945

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Time & Brevity, Arts & Sciences, Living, Philosophy, Poetry & Poets

 John  Koethe

Biography

The author of several collections of poetry, including North Point North: New and Selected (2002), Ninety-fifth Street (2009), and ROTC Kills (2012), John Koethe also publishes and teaches philosophy, focusing on the philosophy of language. Koethe began writing poetry as an undergraduate at Princeton University and received his PhD from Harvard.

Critic Andrew Yaphe calls Koethe “one of our foremost Romantic poets, an inheritor . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Time & Brevity, Arts & Sciences, Living, Philosophy, Poetry & Poets

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.