The Constructor: Poems

John Koethe, Author HarperCollins Publishers $20 (63p) ISBN 978-0-06-019303-4
Few poets can compete with Koethe's long lines for their prosy clarity or their oneiric intensity, sounding out ""how intricate a tone of voice could be, or how evasive/ The direct approach to life could finally become."" For Koethe, past obsessions--like the fantasy of disembodiment of Falling Water (1997)--are always found lacking when matched against present desires: ""Pining Away,"" an autobiographical reworking of the Narcissus myth, and the Dickinson nod ""`I Heard a Fly Buzz...'"" return insistently to epiphanic moments only to find them outrun: ""I/ Think that I was wrong to see my body as a kind of place/ From which the soul, as entropy increases, migrates/ In an upward-moving spiral of completion."" While his Proustian sense of how imagination affects memory lends poignancy to his meditations in this fifth collection, the poet's debt to Stevens often treads a thin line between flashy allusion and direct borrowing (""the intricate evasions warming up again""; ""conditions of mere being""). And sometimes Koethe, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, understands too well the subtlety of thought, and the result, in long poems like ""Mistral"" and the title poem, is a lyric voice too self-consciously ambivalent, lapsing into disenchanted abstraction and dwelling too long in constructed ambiguities. Koethe is at his best when austere, nostalgic and exacting, when the emptiness that frustrates his nothing-if-not-self-critical speakers ripens into reconciliation with the ""increasingly composite individual"" we all occasionally fear ourselves to have become. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/29/1999
Release date: 04/01/1999
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