Below the Coast

By John Koethe b. 1945 John Koethe
A clumsy hillock
Unmolded like a cake on the meadow
In the Laguna Mountains. Tough yellow-green grass growing up to a tree
As thick as a tooth. In winter, on the road from San Diego,   
Thousands of cars crawl up to the snow
And their passengers get out to investigate it
And then drive, discoursing, back home. And that’s California,   
Solemnly discharging its responsibilities.

Meanwhile we breakfast on pancakes the size of a plate   
While the console radio goes on the blink.
Miss L’Espagnole looks out from her frame on the wall,   
Completely prepared (though for what it is impossible to say).   
Her left arm is white and dips into a puddle of fire
Or a pile of cotton on fire. And each thing is severe:   
The house hemmed in by pepper trees and Mexico
(This one is white and in Chula Vista), and the paraphernalia   
Strewn around home: a few magazines summing up politics,   
A matchbox with a lavender automobile on the cover,
And a set of soldiers of several military epochs marching off to war on the raffia rug.
Unless, you’ve grown up amidst palm trees (and buildings that are either unbuilt, or hospitals)
It’s impossible to appreciate a reasonable tree.

      I sometimes consider the parrots that live in the zoo
      And are sold on the street in Tijuana. Colored like national flags,
      Their heads are always cocked to pick up something behind them.

And unless you have lived in a place where the fog
Closes in like a face, it is impossible to be (even temporarily) relieved
When it lifts to expose the freshly painted trim of the city, and it seems
Like a fine day for knowledge: sunlight sleeping on top of the rocks   
And lots of white clouds scudding by like clean sheets
Which, when the air in the bedroom is cold, you pull over your head
And let the temperature slowly increase while you breathe.   
But California has only a coast in common with this.

John Koethe, “Below the Coast” 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)

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Poet John Koethe b. 1945

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 John  Koethe


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 . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Landscapes & Pastorals

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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