John Koethe. Falling Water. New York: HarperPerennial, 1997.
Of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster wrote that "she pushed the light of the English language a little further against the darkness." American modernist writers-and I am thinking specifically here of the territorialization of language by Wallace Stevens in such poems as "Anecdote of the Jar"-pushed ahead with the same project, founding a territory of civilized discourse in a large and diffuse national culture. Yet at some point in the recent past, the ordering and shaping "high culture" of modernism ceded to a raucous, chaotic counter-collective. A different "idea of order," to steal a term from Stevens, began to prevail. When did the reprisal begin? That is a question, among others, which John Koethe considers in his new book, Falling Water In poems that verge on the expository clearness of prose, Koethe takes a hard look at the American landscape of the 1990s and finds, "the image of a process / Of inexorable decay, or of some great unraveling / That drags...forward into emptiness" (68).
Landscape is no accidental term. Koethe descends from a lineage that includes Stevens and Frost, poets who used landscape as a figure or setpiece through which to address an array of concerns from the personal to the social. In the terrain of Falling Water, however, the rural landscapes, already sliding into nostalgia in Frost, have been thoroughly corrupted by new images that originate in urban and technological growth and development, as he notes while traveling the sublunary corridor between Milwaukee and Evanston, Illinois, by car:
...in place of trees there now were office towers And theme parks, parts of a confusing 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. (67)
Telephone wires criss-cross the view. The poet experiences nature, or what remains of it, through a series of lenses, a car window or an enclosed patio, filters which arrange and occlude vision. Koethe is quite aware of the diorama of screens and illusion. His intellect is keen enough, however, to cut past these and having thrown the transparencies masquerading as truths into question, he gets down to the real, skeletal truth, which is a form of disillusionment.
When Koethe is on, and he often is in this new volume, he can show us as few other contemporary poets can into an oneiric world of magnificent austerity, "drained," as he says in "The Secret Amplitude," ...of its vivifying imagery -Of Geoff's cigars, for instance, and Willy's Collision with the pillar at the Ritz
Until the pure experience remains. (25) All of which he delineates in complex sentences, that for all their fluid meanderings, never lose their riveting exactness. Koethe, who teaches philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, understands the value of nuance in thought. …