Falling Water

By John Koethe b. 1945 John Koethe
I drove to Oak Park, took two tours,
And looked at some of the houses.
I took the long way back along the lake.
The place that I came home to—a cavernous
Apartment on the East Side of Milwaukee—
Seems basically a part of that tradition,
With the same admixture of expansion and restraint:
The space takes off, yet leaves behind a nagging
Feeling of confinement, with the disconcerting sense
That while the superficial conflicts got resolved,
The underlying tensions brought to equilibrium,
It isn’t yet a place in which I feel that I can live.
Imagine someone reading. Contemplate a man
Oblivious to his settings, and then a distant person
Standing in an ordinary room, hemmed in by limitations,
Yet possessed by the illusion of an individual life
That blooms within its own mysterious enclosure,
In a solitary space in which the soul can breathe
And where the heart can stay—not by discovering it,
But by creating it, by giving it a self-sustaining
Atmosphere of depth, both in the architecture,
And in the unconstructed life that it contains.
In a late and very brief remark, Freud speculates
That space is the projection of a “psychic apparatus”
Which remains almost entirely oblivious to itself;
And Wright extols “that primitive sense of shelter”
Which can turn a house into a refuge from despair.
I wish that time could bring the future back again
And let me see things as they used to seem to me
Before I found myself alone, in an emancipated state—
Alone and free and filled with cares about tomorrow.
There used to be a logic in the way time passed
That made it flow directly towards an underlying space
Where all the minor, individual lives converged.
The moments borrowed their perceptions from the past
And bathed the future in a soft, familiar light
I remembered from home, and which has faded.
And the voices get supplanted by the rain,
The nights seem colder, and the angel in the mind
That used to sing to me beneath the wide suburban sky
Turns into dreamwork and dissolves into the air,
While in its place a kind of monument appears,
Magnificent in isolation, compromised by proximity
And standing in a small and singular expanse—
As though the years had been a pretext for reflection,
And my life had been a phase of disenchantment—
As the faces that I cherished gradually withdraw,
The reassuring settings slowly melt away,
And what remains is just a sense of getting older.
In a variation of the parable, the pure of heart
Descend into a kingdom that they never wanted
And refused to see. The homely notions of the good,
The quaint ideas of perfection swept away like
Adolescent fictions as the real forms of life
Deteriorate with manically increasing speed,
The kind man wakes into a quiet dream of shelter,
And the serenity it brings—not in reflection,
But in the paralyzing fear of being mistaken,
Of losing everything, of acquiescing in the
Obvious approach (the house shaped like a box;
The life that can’t accommodate another’s)—
As the heart shrinks down to tiny, local things.
Why can’t the more expansive ecstasies come true?
I met you more than thirty years ago, in 1958,
In Mrs. Wolford’s eighth grade history class.
All moments weigh the same, and matter equally;
Yet those that time brings back create the fables
Of a happy or unsatisfying life, of minutes
Passing on the way to either peace or disappointment—
Like a paper calendar on which  it’s always autumn
And we’re back in school again; or a hazy afternoon
Near the beginning of October, with the World Series
Playing quietly on the radio, and the windows open,
And the California sunlight filling up the room.
When I survey the mural stretched across the years
—Across my heart—I notice mostly small, neglected
Parts of no importance to the whole design, but which,
In their obscurity, seem more permanent and real.
I see the desks and auditorium, suffused with
Yellow light connoting earnestness and hope that
Still remains there, in a space pervaded by a
Soft and supple ache too deep to contemplate—
As though the future weren’t real, and the present
Were amorphous, with nothing to hold on to,
And the past were there forever. And the art
That time inflicts upon its subjects can’t
Eradicate the lines sketched out in childhood,
Which harden into shapes as it recedes.
I wish I knew a way of looking at the world
That didn’t find it wanting, or of looking at my
Life that didn’t always see a half-completed
Structure made of years and filled with images
And gestures emblematic of the past, like Gatsby’s
Light, or Proust’s imbalance on the stones.
I wish there were a place where I could stay
And leave the world alone—an enormous stadium
Where I could wander back and forth across a field
Replete with all the incidents and small details
That gave the days their textures, that bound the
Minutes into something solid, and that linked them
All together in a way that used to seem eternal.
We used to go to dances in my family’s ancient
Cadillac, which blew up late one summer evening
Climbing up the hill outside Del Mar. And later
I can see us steaming off the cover of the Beatles’
Baby-butcher album at your house in Mission Bay;
And three years later listening to the Velvet
Underground performing in a roller skating rink.
Years aren’t texts, or anything like texts;
And yet I often think of 1968 that way, as though
That single year contained the rhythms of the rest,
As what began in hope and eagerness concluded in
Intractable confusion, as the wedding turned into a
Puzzling fiasco over poor John Godfrey’s hair.
The parts were real, and yet the dense and living
Whole they once composed seems broken now, its
Voice reduced to disembodied terms that speak to me
More distantly each day, until the tangled years
Are finally drained of feeling, and collapse into a
Sequence of the places where we lived: your parents’
House in Kensington, and mine above the canyon:
Then the flat by Sears in Cambridge, where we
Moved when we got married, and the third floor
Of the house on Francis Avenue, near Harvard Square;
The big apartment in Milwaukee where we lived the
Year that John was born, and last of all the
House in Whitefish Bay, where you live now
And all those years came inexplicably undone
In mid-July. The sequence ended late last year.
Suppose we use a lifetime as a measure of the world
As it exists for one. Then half of mine has ended,
While the fragment which has recently come to be
Contains no vantage point from which to see it whole.
I think that people are the sum of their illusions,
That the cares that make them difficult to see
Are eased by distance, with their errors blending
In an intricate harmony, their truths abiding
In a subtle “spark” or psyche (each incomparable,
Yet each the same as all the others) and their
Disparate careers all joined together in a tangled
Moral vision whose intense, meandering design
Seems lightened by a pure simplicity of feeling,
As in grief, or in the pathos of a life
Cut off by loneliness, indifference or hate,
Because the most important thing is human happiness—
Not in the sense of private satisfactions, but of
Lives that realize themselves in ordinary terms
And with the quiet inconsistencies that make them real.
The whole transcends its tensions, like the intimate
Reflections on the day that came at evening, whose
Significance was usually overlooked, or misunderstood,
Because the facts were almost always unexceptional.
Two years ago we took our son to Paris. Last night
I picked him up and took him to a Lou Reed show,
And then took him home. I look at all the houses as I
Walk down Hackett Avenue to work. I teach my classes,
Visit friends, cook introspective meals for myself,
Yet in the end the minutes don’t add up. What’s lost
Is the perception of the world as something good
And held in common; as a place to be perfected
In the kinds of everyday divisions and encounters
That endowed it with integrity and structure,
And that merged its private moments with the past.
What broke it into pieces? What transformed the
Flaws that gave it feeling into objects of a deep and
Smoldering resentment—like coming home too early,
Or walking too far ahead of you on the rue Jacob?
I wish that life could be a window on the sun,
Instead of just this porch where I can stand and
Contemplate the wires that lace the parking lot
And feel it moving towards some unknown resolution.
The Guggenheim Museum just reopened. Tonight I
Watched a segment of the news on PBS—narrated by a
Woman we met years ago at Bob’s—that showed how
Most of Wright’s interior had been restored,
And how the ramp ascends in spirals towards the sky.
I like the houses better—they flow in all directions,
Merging with the scenery and embodying a milder,
More domestic notion of perfection, on a human scale
That doesn’t overwhelm the life that it encloses.
Isn’t there a way to feel at home within the
Confines of this bland, accommodating structure
Made of souvenirs and emblems, like the hammock
Hanging in the backyard of an undistinguished
Prairie School house in Whitefish Bay—the lineal,
Reduced descendant of the “Flameproof” Wright house
Just a block or two away from where I live now?
I usually walk along the street on Sunday,
Musing on how beautiful it seems, how aspects of it
Recapitulate the Oak Park house and studio, with
Open spaces buried in a labyrinthine interior,
And with the entrance half-concealed on the side—
A characteristic feature of his plans that made it
Difficult to find, although the hope was that in
Trying to get inside, the visitor’s eye would come to
Linger over subtleties he might have failed to see—
In much the way that in the course of getting older,
And trying to reconstruct the paths that led me here,
I found myself pulled backwards through these old,
Uncertain passages, distracted by the details,
And meeting only barriers to understanding why the
Years unfolded as they did, and why my life
Turned out the way it has—like his signature
“Pathway of Discovery,” with each diversion
Adding to the integrity of the whole.
There is this sweep life has that makes the
Accidents of time and place seem small.
Everything alters, and the personal concerns
That love could hold together for a little while
Decay, and then the world seems strange again,
And meaningless and free. I miss the primitive
Confusions, and the secret way things came to me
Each evening, and the pain. I still wonder
Where the tears went, standing in my room each day
And quietly inhabiting a calm, suspended state
Enveloped by the emptiness that scares and thrills me,
With the background noise cascading out of nothing
Like a song that makes the days go by, a song
Incorporating everything—not into what it says,
But simply in the way it touches me, a single
Image of dispersal, the inexhaustible perception
Of contingency and transience and isolation.
It brings them back to me. I have the inwardness
I think I must have wanted, and the quietude,
The solitary temper, and this space where I can
Linger with the silence curling all around me
Like the sound of pure passage, waiting here
Surrounded by the furniture, the books and lists
And all these other emblems of the floating world,
The prints of raindrops that begin as mist, that fall
Discreetly through the atmosphere, and disappear.
And then I feel them in the air, in a reserved,
More earthly music filled with voices reassembling
In a wellspring of remembrance, talking to me again,
And finding shelter in the same evasive movements
I can feel in my own life, cloaked in a quiet
Dignity that keeps away the dread of getting old,
And fading out of other people’s consciousness,
And dying –with its deepest insecurities and fears
Concealed by their own protective colorations,
As the mind secretes its shell and calls it home.
It has the texture of an uncreated substance,
Hovering between the settings it had come to love
And some unformulated state I can’t imagine—
Waiting for the telephone to ring, obsessed with
Ways to occupy these wide, unstructured hours,
And playing records by myself, and waking up alone.
All things are disparate, yet subject to the same
Intense, eradicating wills of time and personality,
Like waves demolishing the walls love seemed to build
Between our lives and emptiness, the certainty they
Seemed to have just two or three short years ago,
Before the anger spread its poison over everything.
I think about the way our visions locked together
In a nightmare play of nervousness and language,
Living day to day inside the concentrated
Force of that relentless argument, whose words
Swept over us in formless torrents of anxiety, two
People clinging to their versions of their lives
Almost like children—living out each other’s
Intermittent fantasies, that fed upon themselves
As though infected by some vile, concentrated hatred;
Who then woke up and planned that evening’s dinner.
It’s all memories now, and distance. Miles away
The cat is sleeping on the driveway, John’s in school,
And sunlight filters through a curtain in the kitchen.
Nothing really changes—the external world intrudes
And then withdraws, and then becomes continuous again.
I went downtown today and got a lamp with pendant
Lanterns made of opalescent art glass—part, I guess,
Of what this morning’s paper called the “Wright craze.”
I like the easy way the days go by, the parts of aging
That have come to seem familiar, and the uneventful
Calm that seems to settle on the house at night.
Each morning brings the mirror’s reassuring face,
As though the years had left the same enduring person
Simplified and changed—no longer vaguely desperate,
No longer torn, yet still impatient with himself
And still restless; but drained of intricacy and rage,
Like a mild paradox—uninteresting in its own right,
Yet existing for the sake of something stranger.
Now and then our life comes over me, in brief,
Involuntary glimpses of that world that blossom
Unexpectedly, in fleeting moments of regret
That come before the ache, the pang that gathers
Sharply, like an indrawn breath—a strange and
Thoughtful kind of pain, as though a steel
Band had somehow snapped inside my heart.
I don’t know. But what I do know is that
None of it is ever going to come to me again.
Why did I think a person only distantly like me
Might finally represent my life? What aspects
Of my attitudes, my cast of mind, my inconclusive
Way of tossing questions at the world had I
Supposed might realize another person’s fantasies
And turn her into someone else—who gradually became
A separate part of me, and argued with the very
Words I would have used, and looked at me through
Eyes I’d looked at as though gazing at myself?
I guess we only realize ourselves in dreams,
Or in these self-reflexive reveries sustaining
All the charms that contemplation holds—until the
Long enchantment of the soul with what it sees
Is lifted, and it startles at a space alight with
Objects of its infantile gaze, like people in a mall.
I saw her just the other day. I felt a kind of
Comfort at her face, one tinctured with bemusement
At the strange and guarded person she’d become—
Attractive, vaguely friendly, brisk (too brisk),
But no one I could think might represent my life.
Why did I even try to see myself in what’s outside?
The strangeness pushes it away, propels the vision
Back upon itself, into these regions filled with
Shapes that I can wander through and never see,
As though their image were inherently unreal.
The houses on a street, the quiet backyard shade,
The room restored to life with bric-a-brac—
I started by revisiting these things, then slowly
Reconceiving them as forms of loss made visible
That balanced sympathy and space inside an
Abstract edifice combining reaches of the past
With all these speculations, all this artful
Preening of the heart. I sit here at my desk,
Perplexed and puzzled, teasing out a tangled
Skein of years we wove together, and trying to
Combine the fragments of those years into a poem.
Who cares if life—if someone’s actual life—is
Finally insignificant and small? There’s still a
Splendor in the way it flowers once and fades
And leaves a carapace behind. There isn’t time to
Linger over why it happened, or attempt to make its
Mystery come to life again and last, like someone
Still embracing the confused perceptions of himself
Embedded in the past, as though eternity lay there—
For heaven’s a delusion, and eternity is in the details,
And this tiny, insubstantial life is all there is.
—And that would be enough, but for the reoccurring
Dreams I often have of you. Sometimes at night
The banished unrealities return, as though a room
Suffused with light and poetry took shape around me.
Pictures line the walls. It’s early summer.
Somewhere in Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel,
Reflecting on his years with “Albertine”—with X—
Suggests that love is just a consciousness of distance,
Of the separation of two lives in time and space.
I think the same estrangement’s mirrored in each life,
In how it seems both adequate and incomplete—part
Day-to-day existence, part imaginary construct
Beckoning at night, and sighing through my dreams
Like some disconsolate chimera, or the subject
Of a lonely, terrifying sadness; or the isolation
Of a quiet winter evening, when the house feels empty,
And silence intervenes. But in the wonderful
Enclosure opening in my heart, I seem to recognize
Our voices lilting in the yard, inflected by the
Rhythms of a song whose words are seamless
And whose lines are never-ending. I can almost
See the contours of your face, and sense the
Presence of the trees, and reimagine all of us
Together in a deep, abiding happiness, as if the
Three of us inhabited a fragile, made-up world
That seemed to be so permanent, so real.
I have this fantasy: It’s early in the evening.
You and I are sitting in the backyard, talking.
Friends arrive, then drinks and dinner, conversation…
The lovely summer twilight lasts forever…
                                       What’s the use?
What purpose do these speculations serve? What
Mild enchantments do these meditations leave?
They’re just the murmurs of an age, of middle age,
That help to pass the time that they retrieve
Before subsiding, leaving everything unchanged.
Each of us at times has felt the future fade,
Or seen the compass of his life diminished,
Or realized some tangible illusion was unreal.
Driving down to Evanston last week, I suddenly
Remembered driving down that road eight years ago,
So caught up in some story I’d just finished
That I’d missed the way the countryside was changing—
How in place of trees there now were office towers
And theme parks, parts of a confusingly panoply of
Barns and discount malls transfiguring a landscape
Filled with high, receding clouds and rows of flimsy
Houses in what used to be a field. I thought of
Other people’s lives, and how impossible it seemed
To grasp them on the model of my own—as little
Mirrors of infinity—or sense their forms of
Happiness, or in their minor personal upheavals
Feel the sweep of time reduced to human scale
And see its abstract argument made visible.
I thought of overarching dreams of plenitude—
How life lacks shape until it’s given one by love,
And how each soul is both a kingdom in itself
And part of some incorporating whole that
Feels and has a face and lets it live forever.
All of these seemed true, and cancelled one another,
Leaving just the feeling of an unseen presence
Tracing out the contours of a world erased,
Like music tracing out the contours of the mind—
For life has the form of a winding curve in space
And in its wake the human figure disappears.
Look at our surroundings—where a previous age
Could visualize a landscape we see borders,
Yet I think the underlying vision is the same:
A person positing a world that he can see
And can’t contain, and vexed by other people.
Everything is possible; some of it seemed real
Or nearly real, yet in the end it spoke to me alone,
In phrases echoing the isolation of a meager
Ledge above a waterfall, or rolling across a vast,
Expanding plain on which there’s always room,
But only room for one. It starts and ends
Inside an ordinary room, while in the interim
Brimming with illusions, filled with commonplace
Delights that make the days go by, with simple
Arguments and fears, and with the nervous
Inkling of some vague, utopian conceit
Transforming both the landscape and our lives,
Until we look around and find ourselves at home,
But in a wholly different world. And even those
Catastrophes that seemed to alter everything
Seem fleeting, grounded in a natural order
All of us are subject to, and ought to celebrate.
—Yet why? That things are temporary doesn’t
Render them unreal, unworthy of regretting.
It’s not as though the past had never happened:
All those years were real, and their loss was real,
And it is sad—I don’t know what else to call it.
I’m glad that both of us seem happy. Yet what
Troubles me is just the way what used to be a world
Turned out, in retrospect, to be a state of mind,
And no more tangible than that. And now it’s gone,
And in its place I find the image of a process
Of inexorable decay, or of some great unraveling
That drags the houses forward into emptiness
And backwards into pictures of the intervening days
Love pieced together out of nothing. And I’m
Certain that this austere vision finally is true,
And yet it strikes me as too meager to believe.
It comes from much too high above the world
And seems to me too hopeless, too extreme—
But then I found myself one winter afternoon
Remembering a quiet morning in a classroom
And inventing everything again, in ordinary
Terms that seemed to comprehend a childish
Dream of love, and then the loss of love,
And all the intricate years between.

John Koethe, "Falling Water" 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 Living, Growing Old, Separation & Divorce, Time & Brevity, Love, Break-ups & Vexed Love, Relationships, Home Life

 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 Living, Growing Old, Separation & Divorce, Time & Brevity, Love, Break-ups & Vexed Love, Relationships, Home Life

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

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