Ninety-fifth Street by John Koethe. NY, NY: Harper Perennial, 2009. www.harperperennial.com
The Living Fire, New and Selected Poems by Edward Hirsch. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. www.knopfpoetry.com
Reviewed by Wendy Vardaman
Substantive collections like the new books by major poets John Koethe and Edward Hirsch offer readers many rewards, including the opportunity to observe and learn from two highly skilled craftsmen and to think deeply about the ideas which figure so prominently and consistently in their work. Koethe’s Ninety-fifth Street and Hirsch’s The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems are the eighth book by each author, and both poets have received numerous honors, among them The National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur Fellowship (Hirsch) and The Kingsley Tufts Award (Koethe). Ninety-fifth Street is also this year's winner of the recently announced Academy of American Poets' Lenore Marshall Prize. Both authors publish outside of poetry as well: Koethe has brought his considerable analytical capacity to bear on epistemological problems and literary criticism during his thirty-five year career as a philosophy professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, from which position he has just retired. Hirsch, a professor of English and Creative Writing with a Ph.D. in Folklore, as well as the president of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York City, wrote the best-selling How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (2000).
Similarities do not end with their success or their careers. Both men write densely allusive poetry that would be at ease alongside the poems of the 20th century’s great Modernists: T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, W.H. Auden, as well as other latter-day Modernists like John Ashbery, a key figure in Koethe’s poetry and poetic life. I suspect that Koethe and Hirsch would likewise both be at ease with these historical figures; Koethe’s title poem, “Ninety-fifth Street,” a tribute to the mid-century New York City poetry world that coalesced around Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, envisions the afterlife as a place where these poets meet again to talk, a “cocktail party / At the end of the mind” (to refigure a phrase by Stevens). Reading and reflecting on these two books, I wondered to what extent Modernism, with its awareness of the inadequacy of language, distrust of the authorial center of the poem, rejection of the transcendental power of nature, and relentless search for meaning, has really lost its hold on contemporary poetry, for all of our pretense to writing a post-modern world.
The focus of both poets remains firmly on the “self,” whether that self points to the author of the poem or a persona whose voice feels amazingly unified across the body of each man’s work—subject to change, to age, to history—despite the deep sense that identity is fictional. Hirsch’s work increasingly, more so than Koethe’s, turns to persona and mythic and historical figures—usually writers or artists, but neither author writes fiction as much as they write autobiography. That’s not to say confession or even memoir, but neither invests much of their poetic project imagining what it would be like to be or to speak as someone else, and Hirsch’s recent poems return to the autobiographical after a brief foray into other modes in previous collections. Characteristic new poems like “Early Sunday Morning” and “Milk” self-consciously raise meta-level questions about the autobiographical, about memory, as Koethe’s so often do, too:
It’s like this: just when you think
you have forgotten that red-haired girl
who left you stranded in a parking lot
forty years ago, you wake up
early enough to see her disappearing
around the corner of your dream
on someone else’s motorcycle, (“Early Sunday Morning” 17)
“Milk” recalls a moment in which the adult narrator tries the breast milk offered by a stranger and then examines the ethics of the story’s multiple tellings:
This happened a long time ago in another city
and it is wrong to tell about it.
It was infantile to bring it up in therapy.
And yet it is one of those moments—
misplaced, involuntary—that swim up
out of the past without a conscience: (19)
Koethe similarly writes often of memory, consciousness and our struggle to assemble the fragmented past into some semblance of narrative—the essence, in his work, of poetry, despite the knowledge that autobiography itself is fiction:
I love the way remembering lets the light in, as the sullen gray
Of consciousness dissolves into a yard, a pepper tree, a summer day,
And minor moments and details that had been buried in the past
Take on the clarity of dreams, with a transparency they never had in life.
—It isn’t true. Some moments lie beyond the light…
…I try to see my life
As a single narrative, with parts already there, and others to be filled in. (“The Lath House” 7)
In some ways, Koethe views the self as the only story: not only in his own work, but also in poetry:
“The tiresome old man is telling us his life story.”
I guess I am, but that’s what poets do—not always
Quite as obviously as this, and usually more by indirection
And omission, but beneath the poetry lies the singular reality
And unreality of an individual life. (“Ninety-fifth Street,” 79)
Or he writes about “the nagging fear / of being someone to whom nothing ever happens. / Thus the fantasy of the narrative behind the story, / Of the half-concealed life that lies beneath / The ordinary one”(“Chester,” 3).
Hirsch’s excavation of the past is decidedly more populated than Koethe’s. Poems such as “My Grandmother’s Bed,” “Execution,” “The Abortion,” “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944,” “Branch Library,” and “Boy with a Headset,” a rare poem about parenting, are some of his most compelling. (The fact that both men are fathers and have so little room in their poetry for children, parenting, fatherhood is simultaneously confounding and fascinating.) I’m especially partial to “Execution,” which recalls a high school football coach’s late-life illness:
And I remembered the game in my senior year
When we met a downstate team who loved hitting
More than we did, who battered us all afternoon
With a vengeance, who destroyed us with timing
And power, with deadly, impersonal authority,
Machine-like fury, perfect execution. (88)
Or “Branch Library,” a nostalgic autobiographical poem, that asserts a disassociation from a youthful self, even while it underscores the continuity of past and present, at least for the reader: “I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy/who perched in the branches of the old branch library.//He spent the Sabbath flying between the wobbly stacks/and the flimsy wooden tables on the second floor,//pecking at nuts, nesting in broken spines, scratching/notes under his own corner patch of sky”(211).
Despite obvious differences, their similarities on many subjects, including their focus on and feeling of self-division, are striking. Consider the above passage from “Branch Library” and the following from “Self-portrait” (Hirsch) and “Ninety-fifth Street” (Koethe):
I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can’t get along. …
I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin
and I’ll be reconciled at last,
I’ll be whole again. (Hirsch 221-2)
In what’s become the near future—two versions of myself
And of the people that we knew, each one an other
To the other, yet both indelibly there: the twit of twenty
And the aging child of sixty-two, still separate
And searching in the night, (Koethe 80)
Both authors likewise make similar use of place to reflect the poet’s state of mind, or his detachment from his surroundings. In Koethe, this manifests itself through some interesting narrative techniques as well, particularly a characteristic disassociation of narrator from narrative. Poems like “Chester,” “Home,” and “Belmont Park” swing back and forth between a personal and impersonal narrator. The opening lines of “Home” seem ironically distanced from the subject of home, and it’s not until the fifth line that Koethe self-consciously introduces the first-person:
It was a real place: There was a lawn to mow
And boxes in the garage. It was always summer
Or school, and even after oh so many years
It was always there, like the voice on the telephone
Each Sunday evening. I wondered how it was going to feel
When I was finally on my own—alone, with no family left
And no home to gravitate away from or think through. (5)
In “Chester,” also set at home, Koethe never uses first-person pronouns to describe a man with a cat at the foot of his bed or the feelings the man experiences, despite the implication that it is the poet/narrator who has this experience: “It is a feeling of sufficiency, one menaced/ by the fear of some vague lack, of a simplicity/ of self, a self without a soul”(3).
Although place provides the key images in Ninety-fifth Street—the California of his childhood, NYC as the poetic center of the world, Cambridge, MA, where he went to grad school, Wisconsin where he has lived for thirty-five years, and the Europe of recent travels—places (like people) are significant as metaphor, for what they reveal about the poet, as well as about the Mind itself, and the way the mind yearns toward this or that place in this or that time, constantly returning to and tending these spots as if it/we ourselves had been there only yesterday, despite the intervention of decades, death, age: “The poem knows where it’s going—I could almost phone it in: a California / Past still lingering in a Raymond Chandler reverie, and then the air it wears today”(11). Or else place stands for chaos, as in “This is Lagos,” or decay, “The Menomonee Valley.” Again, this is a projection of the mind, a chaos and decay that begins there and alternately projects itself onto or seeks correction in the external world, in a kind of interesting and self-conscious oscillation between what Ruskin called “The Pathetic Fallacy” and Eliot’s “Objective Correlative.” And one has to see this self-consciousness itself as emerging from the major shifts in thought about the Mind during this same time—from the belief that the reality external to the subject is constructed by the subject, to the belief that the subject is constructed by external reality, to what Koethe seems to arrive at here: an uneasy relation of subjective and objective whose borders are unclear and essentially unknowable, if no less real for that uncertainty.
The mid-section of Ninety-fifth Street is itself a corridor through which poet and reader travel—in a narrative architecture reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—from a section in which childhood and the present mix and coexist in the poet’s mind, through the poems about continental Europe, especially Berlin, with its heavily laden connotations, arriving at our final destination, which is, ironically, the idealized NYC poetry past and paradise of the final, title piece, linked only half-ironically to Florence of the Renaissance. These central poems do not, perhaps, like Hirsch’s parallel travel poems, tell us much that is new if we are travelers, as so many people are now. We go to foreign countries and suddenly see the outlines of ourselves—personally, culturally—of our minds and identities through experiencing more radical difference than in normal daily life back home. Travel, then, becomes both an occasion to see our own edges, as well as the occasion to show how the mind resists or embraces that knowledge, that opportunity for expansion.
The first of Koethe’s travel poems, “Clouds,” takes a head-on look at Romanticism and its idiom—weather, walking, the aesthetic experience, freedom, and an “enchanting show of clouds,” which are themselves, self-reflexively, Romantic paintings of clouds, arriving at this celebration of insubstantiality:
Evanescence is a way of seeming free, free to disappear
Into the background of the city, of the sky,
Into a vast surround indifferent to these secret lives
That come and go without a second thought
Beyond whatever lingers in some incidental lines,
Hanging for a while in the air like clouds
Almost too faint to see, like Goethe’s clouds. (32)
Likewise, “Venetian Coda,” the last travel piece, is about the poet’s struggle and inevitable failure to understand World War II, evil itself, taking a phenomenological view of place and circling back to the relation of place to self and the problem of identity:
Whatever lay behind that 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. (49)
Compare Hirsch’s surprisingly similar imagery in “After a Long Insomniac Night”:
One shore disappeared behind me
and another beckoned.
that I forgot the person I had been
as easily as the clouds drifting overhead. (237)
Like Koethe, Hirsch’s newest work includes numerous poems about travel, identity, and the relationship of self to history in, e.g., “On the Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Death,” “Isis Unveiled,” “Winter in Edinburgh,” “Dark Tour,” “Once in Helsinki.” In “On the Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Death,” Hirsch writes, catching the significance of their collective project: “At the dimly lit Museum of the Far North/The subject was the poet’s internal exile,// Metaphysics versus History, and the fateful/ Struggle between Poetry and Time,//A Cold War that will never end”(4). “Once, in Helsinki” likewise depicts a union of setting and state of mind: “It was a whiteout,/an epic storyteller/without a story…I stood there mesmerized by the frozen light.//Hell was sinking in. I was alone in a world without a vision”(15).“Dark Tour,” is a sequence that tells the story of a collapsing relationship through haikus, each of which turns on some play on or pun in a city’s name; much of the humor is winceable, though I’m sure Hirsch knows that well enough, and goes to characterizing the narrator, as in “Stockholm”:
our stock was down and our home
was always mortgaged. (9)
The first of the haiku, “Concord,” suggests that, in fact, the tour occurs in the narrator’s mind:
A discordant day
in the library leafing
through an old atlas. (9)
The tour ends peaceably, where it began, with another version of “Concord” and more puns:
Sunlight in the trees.
A day in the woods leafing
a fresh concordance. (14)
Whatever temporary freedom that the mind achieves in Koethe through a sense of its evanescence and impermanence seems obliterated by the poem that begins the third and final section of Ninety-fifth Street. The deliberately exaggerated meter, which keeps getting away from the poet, and the regular rhyme of “As I Woke Up One Morning” recollects Auden, whose title (“As I Walked Out One Evening”) Koethe inverts, underscoring a voice looking for solace, for regularity, that it simultaneously believes to be unobtainable:
I heard the hint of a song
As I lingered before the mirror,
Sure that before very long
It would all feel new again,
If only for a few hours,
By dint of an inconsolable
Of transcending time and space
Before falling back to earth. (54)
Koethe’s aesthetics—minimalist, conversational—lack extensive amounts of sonic or rhetorical ornament except when it is to focus our attention, as in this poem, on the failure of such patterns to achieve order and meaning. Note that Koethe’s poems do, however, pay much attention sometimes to form and meter and that he often works in syllabics or a quietly natural blank verse.
Hirsch’s own use of form grew steadily through the 90s during the same time he was employing more historical and mythical personae, when many poets were rediscovering the pleasures of form. The collections On Love (1998) and Lay Back the Darkness (2003) contain, for instance, sestinas and pantoums about authors, as well as poems from “The Hades Sonnets.” Two new poems, “Dark Tour” and “Once in Helsinki” are narratives built out of haiku stanzas. While the newer work has retreated from the employment of received forms, Hirsch pays considerable attention, as always, to sound, though not so as to call attention to itself, and, like Koethe, to the balancing of lines and the architecture of a poem:
That sliver peering through the clouds
looks like a bell that can no longer ring
in an abandoned church steeple
I don’t mind the mindless fog
but my room at the top of the stairs
tilts like a broken boat at sea (21)
Like Koethe, Hirsch’s aesthetics are minimalist, conversational, careful. Here is a poem from Special Orders (2008) that addresses that fact self-consciously, “The Minimalist Museum”:
I spent my forties at that window, stirring milk
into my coffee and brooding about the past,
listening to Satie’s experiments and Cage’s
dicey music wafting over the temple of modernism.
I chanced a decade at that window, impervious
to the precarious moment, the broken moon-
light flooding over the neighborhood trees, (220)
The political and religious sentiments expressed in both books are likewise quiet, careful and tasteful, more abstract than personal. Both poets profess pervasive and profound religious skepticism, which seems to be required of academics their age. Sometimes, one wants to tell the narrators of these poems that they should just engage with other humans, and with the world, on a more regular basis, rather than insisting on doubt and detachment. That would, of course, be to fall into the trap of seeing their personae as real—but one does, I do, even though I do not identify them, intellectually anyway, with the men who wrote these books. Still it’s hard not for me to want to admonish their narrators to volunteer at shelters or schools or prisons or a struggling arts non-profit—anything that would get them out of their own heads occasionally, precisely the place, I presume, that the authors would argue we cannot leave. Both poets often employ an ironic narrative stance, reminiscent of a Jim Jarmusch film in which the main character wanders to a window and stands irresolutely for several minutes, to express their skepticism—regarding God, others, themselves, thought, action. Thus we have Koethe saying characteristically:
I like to think there’s something vaster than myself
Hidden in the past, to be rekindled by a word—although I know
It’s merely hidden in my brain, and by the time it filters through the cells
And nerves and finds the air, I’ve no idea where it came from. (12)
It’s all, as Yeats remarked, a silent quarrel with yourself,
One in which internal strife and external equanimity
Cancel each other out, presenting to the world
About the last thing it needs—another modern poet, (67)
Many of Hirsch’s newer poems are similarly focused. “Forebodings” reads like a manifesto of a generation genteelly ungiven to belief, “All night I feel the homesick waves/and hear ravens scavenging in my sleep”(21). “Last Saturday” with its punning title is a grimly funny poem about an exterminator: “I never expected him to come/so early, without warning./I never expected him to be so young”(20).An earlier poem, “Incandescence at Dusk,” expresses a more forthright view: “I don’t believe in ultimate things./I don’t believe in the inextinguishable light/of the other world./I don’t believe that we will be lifted up/and transfixed by radiance. One incandescent dusky world is all there is”(84).
There is the odd sense throughout these books of Koethe’s and Hirsch’s narrators as poetic equivalents of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman or John Updike’s Rabbit—men who are not above or outside their time, their zeitgeist, despite their intelligence, but fashioned by it, trapped in it, and conscious of that fact. Still, these are tasteful and substantive poems that have made their mark, and though there are occasional signs of struggle with others and with God, there is the feeling, the sensibility, that that struggle has little to do with the poetry, which is as neat, as orderly, as Eliot’s or Dryden’s. Ultimately, it’s hard to see either of these two poets as the beginning of something, rather than its perfect end, despite their marvelous erudition, their careful poetic craft, and their often stunning poetic architecture, as though the cocktail party at the end of the mind began some time ago and they were the last guests to arrive. I wonder if Hirsch and Koethe don’t wonder about that, too, Koethe musing on Wordsworth and the problem of the artist as a public figure in “The Recluse," or, as Hirsch puts it in "Fall":
Changes and moves in the split second between summer's
Sprawling past and winter's hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform.
Wendy Vardaman author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press 2009), is a co-editor of Verse Wisconsin. Visit wendyvardaman.com.