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The Constant Voice

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Above a coast that lies between two coasts   
Flight 902 turns west towards San Diego.   
Milwaukee falls away. The constant passenger,   
Removed from character and context, resumes   
His California story, gradually ascending,
Reading Farewell, My Lovely for the umpteenth time,   
Like a book above the world, or below the noise.   
I recall some houses halfway in the desert,   
And how dry the trees all seemed, and temporary   
Even the tallest buildings looked, with bungalows   
Decaying in the Santa Ana wind. And finally   
Just how small it was, and mean. Is it nostalgia   
For the limited that makes the days go quickly,   
Tracing out their spirals of diminishing concern?   
Like all the boys who lived on Westland Avenue,   
I learned to follow the trails through the canyon,   
Shoot at birds with a BB gun, and dream of leaving.   
What are books? To me they seemed like mirrors   
Holding up a vision of the social, in which people,   
Beckoning from their inaccessible preserves
Like forgotten toys, afforded glimpses of those
Evanescent worlds that certain minor writers
—Raymond Chandler say, or even Rupert Brooke—
Could visualize somehow, and bring to life again.
And though these worlds were sometimes difficult to see,   
Once having seen them one returned to find the words   
Still there, like a part of the surroundings
Compliant to one’s will.

                                     Yet these are attitudes,
And each age has its separate store of attitudes,
Its store of tropes—“In Grantchester, in Grantchester!—”
That filter through its dreams and fill its songs.   
Hume tried to show that sympathy alone allows   
“The happiness of strangers” to affect our lives.   
Yet now and then a phrase, echoing in the mind   
Long after its occasion, seems to resurrect   
A world I think I recognize, and never saw.   
For what was there to see? Some houses on a hill   
Next to a small stream? A village filled with people   
I couldn’t understand? Could anyone have seen the   
Transitory sweetness of the Georgians’ England   
And the world before the War, before The Waste Land?   
Years are secrets, and their memories are often   
Stories of a past that no one witnessed, like the   
Fantasies of home one builds to rationalize   
The ordinary way one’s life has gone since then.   
Words seem to crystallize that life in pictures—
In a postcard of a vicarage, or of a canyon   
Wedged between the desert and an endless ocean—
But their clarity is fleeting. I can nearly
See the coast from here, and as I hear the engines   
And the bell chimes, all those images dissolve.   
And then I start to hear the murmur of that   
Constant voice as distant from me as a landscape   
Studied from an airplane: a contingent person   
With a particular mind, and a particular will,   
Descending across a desert, westward over mountains   
And the sparsely peopled scrub beyond the city,   
Pocked with half-filled reservoirs and rudimentary   
Trails with nothing waiting for me at the end
—“And is there honey still for tea?”—
But isolated houses nestled in the hills.

John Koethe, “The Constant Voice” 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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The Constant Voice

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