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John Koethe

I hate believing that I grew up in a country
Better than the one I live in now. We were vaguely
Middle-class: my mother was a schoolteacher,
My father a Navy NCO, a former concert violinist

Who cracked up—a “nervous breakdown”
As they called it then—when I was in the eleventh grade.
Sputnik woke the nation up, money poured in,
The San Diego schools were great, I played the clarinet,

Ran track, won science fairs and then went off to college
In the East, which I imagined would be paradise,
And indeed it was: the country turned out to be green
Instead of brown and tan, New York was new,

The rich were interesting and smart instead of just obscene,
And some of that enchantment trickled down to me.
It didn’t last. There was Vietnam of course, but even then
There seemed to be a way to get it right: decency

And common sense, the individual life fulfilled
Within the confines of a common good.
People could create themselves, then finally retire,
The air felt full of possibilities deferred

But realized eventually, the national narrative
Was still in progress, one in which each person’s life
Pursued a course that led from infancy to age.
It doesn’t really matter whether all of this was true—

It seemed to be, then that perception changed.
When did the page turn and the past turn into paradise?
I remember watching TV shows about the future as a miracle,
With supersonic trains and flying cars and towers

Climbing to the sky. It’s a disaster movie now,
A Depression-era song about ambition realized, and gone:
“I built a tower to the sun.” I remember those towers
To the sun, and the trains that raced against time.


I travel a lot, I age, my mood and outlook change.
This week I came to see my granddaughter in Nashville
For the second time, big eyes and bald and smiling
In her Exersaucer with bright blocks and rings and a plastic fish.

On Saturday we went to Carnton Plantation, the site
Of the Battle of Franklin, the bloodiest encounter of the Civil War:
Two thousand dead in five hours, with the house turned into a hospital
And thirty or forty to a room, and stacks of amputated limbs.

Initially the dead were buried in an open field of shallow graves,
Their arms and legs protruding from the ground. Eventually
The village built a proper cemetery, with cypress trees protecting
Rows of regular stone blocks and Baby Lauren in her stroller.

In retrospect the battle was gratuitous: the war was lost,
The military part at least. Nashville is a new Milwaukee, cities
Situated at a confluence of the nation’s economic winds:
Prosperity that flowed from immigration and industry and beer,

Followed by cheap labor and the drift of capital from there to here.
That’s what the war was actually about: slavery was its cause,
But slavery was unsustainable—it was simply too egregious to endure.
It wasn’t race that mattered, it was human property, and property is colorless,

Labor fungible—it’s not important how it looks or how it sounds,
As long as it produces and shuts up: skyscrapers going up, restaurants,
Wal-Marts, football stadiums, neighborhoods that used to be slums
Suddenly sprouting boutiques, people anxiously content, and no real future.

I imagine the worst, because the truth is difficult to see.
Lauren, John and Annie, people like me are all going to be fine
(Though I’ll be dead). But who’ll keep it all? To ask that question
Is to answer it: as we drove past the new Nissan headquarters,

Silver in the sun, I thought about Milwaukee and Detroit
And how they’re nobody’s fault, because the question reaches back
To the poem of the past, and to the dying fall of one last ode
To the Confederate dead, resting in victory beneath the cypress trees.


Sometimes there isn’t any explanation for what happened,
Or the explanation is unsatisfying, since it rules out the possibility
Of a different outcome, of things turning out other than they did.
That’s when the mind turns to fantasies and paranoia: we want them

To be different, as of course they would be but for—for what?
The assassinations? Altamont? For Charles Manson? Last month
Diane and I were on Martha’s Vineyard, ground zero for the benign rich
I used to love, and in a way still do: there used to be a balance

Between civilization and its discontents, but then that balance
Altered, or continued only intermittently, in small pockets
Of privilege where wealth assumes a human scale. I read my poems,
We ate lobster rolls and drove around the island where they filmed Jaws,

Past Inkwell Beach, through Oak Bluffs and the gothic cottages
Where Methodists once waited on the ending of the world, which didn’t end.
The world never ends—what ends are explanations of the way it is.
I didn’t know where Chappaquiddick was—a part of Martha’s Vineyard

It turned out. I remember 1969, and how America was poised between
A recent past already turning into history, and a future that, in theory anyway,
Remained open. Nixon had finally got elected, but it didn’t have to last—
We could still get back to where things started to collapse, and make it work.

I didn’t care what shape it took, as long as it resumed the right direction.
I barely read the story in the Times, for there were other possibilities,
But one by one they fell away and 1972 became a debacle. True, there was
Watergate, but that was a holding action, as the country changed in ways

I could hardly see. I remember reading V. in college, a novel
About a search for something to explain a century, or simply someone’s life.
Explanations like that don’t exist: we harbor them because they’re easy,
And because reality is numb. We took the ferry across a channel

Narrow enough to swim, we walked along a beach that dropped
Steeply into Nantucket Sound. It was all gone: the party and its aftermath,
The lighted houses that they passed on the way to the bridge,
The Oldsmobile that skidded off Dike Road and into Poucha Pond.