Poetry Review: John Koethe’s “Beyond Belief” – Disembodied Mind
By Henry Chandonnet
Poet John Koethe moralizes in an abstract “universal” space — some might call it versifying in a vacuum.
Beyond Belief by John Koethe. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 71 pages, $26.
Must creating art be a burden? Kafka once described his artistic process as “tearing (himself) to pieces.” For some, art must be the product of suffering and painful self-excavation. That might be extreme, but at the very least some introspection should be part of the mix. In the case of John Koethe’s latest collection of poetry, Beyond Belief, interiority — at least of the personal variety — is pretty well banished. Koethe is a poet of generalized observations, supplying (at his best) high attitude philosophical insights about life, aging, and time. The catch is that these claims lack passion and existential juiciness. His claims are often not grounded in concrete experience or quirky perceptions of himself and others. His verse is filled with grand unsubstantiated claims that, like a giant balloon, float above the day to day.
This is not to say that Koethe doesn’t provide fodder for thought, particularly when his statements are inspired by visceral experiences. At his most effective he grapples with elemental questions: Who am I and why am I experiencing the world in this way? His poem “Sheltering at Home,” commenting on the trials of COVID isolation and it is an example of the rewards of this kind of meditation:
I hate it – but then home
Was always a place to depart from
Or come back to, not a state of being in itself.
These lines shimmer because they grasp reality, touching on familiar truths. They are general (whose home?) but we have all experienced life in quarantine, so there is no need for specificity. But when Koethe doesn’t root the arguments in his poems in shared human experiences, writing about conundrums we can’t contextualize easily within our own lives, their value diminishes.
Koethe’s philosophical claims are provocative at times, but that doesn’t make them poetic. Consider the collection’s titular poem,“Beyond Belief”:
I keep saying the same things
Over and over, until they turn into a prayer or an admonishment,
An admonishment that feels like a prayer, like someone else’s prayer:
Teach me to care and not to care, teach me when to turn around,
When to speak and when to shut up. Teach me to sit still.
The poem comments on the human desire to be secure, to be taught (or teach oneself) how much to care. To me, the lines read like the iconic speech in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag: “I know exactly what I want. I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about.” What makes the sentiment so devastating in Fleabag is that we have grown to know something about her life. There is a dramatic quality to this confession of uncertainty. Koethe’s poetry lacks that theatricality — we don’t know who Koethe is, aside from what he projects as his philosophical outlook. But they feel cut off from life. What has triggered this need for a mentor? The “prayer” is striking, but it needs to be rooted in a concrete psychological context.
At their worst, Koethe’s analytical musings come off as verbose or condescending. As in his poem “The Dogs of Mexico City”:
Maybe that’s why,
Though the Mexica were much more advanced than anyone else
In North America, they couldn’t last, for gods stifle all,
And while they had astronomy, Europe had guns and steel.
It’s not enough to live in isolation and in harmony with
Nature and yourself, either as an individual or a whole civilization –
There are always Others. Yet I’m not writing this to moralize
Or explain. I’m writing this to celebrate the dogs of Mexico City,
Who were everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, mostly small.
These lines strike me as patronizing, an attempt at intellectual bravado coming off as a gesture of overindulgence. To analogize the ability to live freely and openly to the massacre of the Mexica feels at best overly romanticized, and at worst ignorant. And the line “I’m not writing this to moralize or explain” falls flat because the verse is all about moralizing and overexplaining.
Beyond Belief reflects an older tradition of philosophizing and it may have run its course. The best of today’s philosophers see themselves, at least in part, as storytellers. Judith Butler and Kwame Anthony Appiah ground their speculations in stories and personal experiences from the people they are referring to. Koethe moralizes in an abstract “universal” space — some might call it versifying in a vacuum.
Henry Chandonnet is a current student at Tufts University double majoring in English and Economics with a minor in Political Science. He serves as arts editor for the Tufts Daily, the preeminent campus publication. Henry’s work may also be seen in Film Cred, Dread Central, and Flip Screen. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @HenryChandonnet.
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