Venetian Coda

By John Koethe b. 1945 John Koethe
Sometimes I dream what’s called the male dream:
I’m going somewhere not too far away, I’m almost there,
When there’s a slight delay—a minor detour of no consequence,
But then another, and another, as I get farther and farther
Away from my initial destination, which becomes inaccessible.
Before I left Berlin I went to Venice, a city that reminds me of that dream.
However close you are to where you want to go, the compound
Turnings of its narrow passageways and alleys carry you relentlessly away,
Until you dead-end at a small canal that’s nowhere on your map.
The late, wrecked century that started in Berlin, where all roads lead—
I thought I’d find, if not the truth exactly, then at least an inkling
Of some fantasy that lay beneath the placid surface of the day,
The remnants of some dream so many people had to die for. Instead,
I watched the boats go by, and clouds traverse the sky
Above an unreal city floating on the water. We’re sure at first
That something lies beyond the facts and books, but then we realize it isn’t there.
Whatever lay behind the slaughter wasn’t in the world,
Existing merely in the heart, in memory, in someone’s imagination,
Places harboring nothing real. To try to see it is to watch it disappear,
Stranding you a life away from where the unimaginable began,
Staring blankly at your own face floating in the water.

Source: Poetry (May 2006).

 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 Faith & Doubt, War & Conflict, Religion, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Activities, Travels & Journeys

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Blank Verse, Allusion

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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