What the Stars Meant

By John Koethe b. 1945 John Koethe
On a backwards-running clock in Lisbon,   
By the marble statue of Pessoa;
On an antique astrolabe in London   
Tracing out the sky above Samoa,

Thousands of miles away—in time, in place,   
Each night conspires to create a myth
That stands for nothing real, yet leaves you with   
The vague impression of a human face.

The fragments fly apart and shift, trembling   
On the threshold of a kind of fullness:   
The minor wonder of remembering;
The greater wonders of forgetfulness.

For one looks back as someone else might yearn   
For a new life, and set his course upon
The polestar, bid his adieus, and move on.   
The journey takes a solipsistic turn,

Forsaking starlight for an inner glow,   
And reducing all human history,
All human culture—highbrow, middle-, low-—
To one reflecting surface, one story.

What fills the heaven of a single mind?
The things that used to fill Kant’s mind with awe   
—“The starry heavens and the moral law”—
Seem distant now, and difficult to find

Amid the message of satiety
Issuing from the corners of the sky,
Filled with monotonous variety:
Game shows, an interview with Princess Di,

And happy talk, and sitcoms and the news,   
The shit that floats across your living room   
Each weekday evening. Waiting in the pews,   
Out in the desert where the cacti bloom,

Something else was forming, something stranger   
Gathering in the gulf below the stairs—
As though the mystery of the manger
Were written in the day-to-day affairs

Of a world consecrated to Mammon,   
Yet governed by those sacred absences   
That make the spirit soar, and presences   
At one remove, like the sound of Cuban

Drumbeats issuing from the Ricardos’   
Love nest on the television station   
Like distant thunder; or Leonardo’s   
“Wave that flees the site of its creation.”

In the desert far beyond the city,
One hears the cadences for which one longs,   
The lyrics of those half-forgotten songs,
—Some of them poignant, some of them witty—

Brimming with the melody of passage;
One feels the wind that blows the soul about,   
Repeating its inscrutable message;
And as night falls, one sees the stars come out.

I found myself beneath a canopy
Of scenes left out of someone else’s life
—The dog that didn’t bark, Rosebud, Cain’s wife—
Arrayed above me in a panoply

Of glittering debris, gigantic swirls
Of stars, and slowly moving caravans
Of stars like tiny Christmas lights or pearls   
Of tapioca, floating in a danse

macabre across the heavens as I stood,   
Watching the pageant in the sky unfold.   
I felt the chill of something much too old
To comprehend—not the Form of the Good,

But something inchoate and violent,
A Form of Darkness. Suddenly the songs   
Floating through the revelry fell silent,
As in The Masque of the Red Death, as throngs

Of the dead twinkled at me from above.   
The intimate domain of memory
Became an endless field of entropy   
Transfigured, inking in the outlines of

Eurydice entombed, Orpheus immured,   
And, in the center of their universe,   
That subtler diadem of stars obscured
By the brighter constellations, the Hearse.

Standing off to one side, as though bereft,   
There was a figure with averted eyes,   
Gesturing in a language of surprise
That took possession of my heart, yet left

The question of her meaning unresolved.   
I looked at her. It was time to begin.   
The apparations in the sky dissolved,   
Leaving me alone, and growing old. In

The wide, unstructured heavens overhead   
The stars were still shining. When I got home,   
The message light was blinking on the phone.   
I don’t remember what the message said.

John Koethe, “What the Stars Meant” 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, Arts & Sciences, Sciences, Stars, Planets, Heavens, Social Commentaries, Popular Culture, Living, The Mind

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

 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 . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Arts & Sciences, Sciences, Stars, Planets, Heavens, Social Commentaries, Popular Culture, Living, The Mind

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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