John Koethe, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, returns with his latest poetry collection, Sally’s Hair, now available in paperback. This slim but poignant collection takes you on a journey through Koethe’s past and present, his thoughts and philosophies; it also discusses and questions the fundamental nature of humanity’s existence: what’s it all for? Koethe is somewhat unique in being both a philosopher and a poet, where he is not only a master of the writing craft, but also the contemplative craft, presenting wonderful poems that also make you think and question your own reality.
The 96-page book is split into four definitive parts. The first part makes one feel as if they are sitting in a comfortable chair on a deck, the gurgling of a calming river in the background, as Koethe takes you through nature and its beauty, but also through the kaleidoscope of his life, his past, and what it means to him now. “To see things as they are is hard,/But to leaving them alone is harder;” he writes in “Morning.” In “Piranesi’s Keyhole,” Koethe leads you through his imagination, and what it means to have an imagination, to be able to disconnect from reality, but it leaves one vulnerable to questioning what reality is and how different it is from imagination? On this journey through the psyche, it is easy to get lost along the way, but Koethe guides the reader on through to the end where there is no definite answer, but a longing questioning which the reader is left with.
The second part consists of a single, extending poem called “The Unlasting,” where Koethe relives the important moments of his life, and he looks back on himself, questioning what it means. With this, he also discusses the meaning of death, the meaning of the end, questioning the different beliefs of people, their faith in the end that will supposedly continue with something. It forces the reader to not only enjoy this poem of Koethe’s life and eventual death, but their own, as they wonder philosophically what the end really means, when considering the whole from the past to the conclusion. Again, there are no answers, but merely thoughts and ideas to expound upon.
In the third part, Koethe questions his life up to now, as he grows older. There is the discussion of age and the concept of accomplishment from a philosophical standpoint. While he never outright says it, he is ultimately asking: what does it all mean? This is best revealed in “Aubade”:
“It’s early, but I recognize this place.
I recognize the feeling, after an endless
Week of mornings in America, of returning
To the home one never really leaves,
Mired in its routines. I walk to what I try to
Tell myself is work, entering at the end of the day
The same room, like the man in Dead of Night –
The dinner, the DVD from Netflix,
The drink before I go to sleep and wake alone
In the dead of night like Philip Larkin
Groping through the dark at 4 a.m. to piss,
At home in the reality of growing old
Without ever growing up. I finally get up
An hour later, run, eat breakfast, read and write –
A man whose country is a state of mind,
A community of one preoccupied with time,
Leaving me with nothing much to do
But to write it off to experience – the experience
Of a rudimentary consciousness at 5 a.m.,
Aware of nothing but the drone
Of its own voice and a visual field
Composed of dogs and joggers in a park.”
With this discussion of age and time, the change from then to now, in the last few poems of the section, Koethe inevitable discusses the Iraq war and the pointlessness in its death and destruction. From “Poetry and the War”: “Some wars are fantasies. The bombs and deaths are real,/Yet behind them lies an argument played out in someone’s mind.” It is clear where Koethe stands on this point, but it also fits in with the questions he is asking when one reaches middle age in our current time.
In the final part of this collection, Koethe has traveled through his history, relived his past, and there is now an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. The moments of the past are over, never to be replayed, but to be mentally relived. In the title poem, “Sally’s Hair,” Koethe relives a chance encounter with a girl when he was young, which resulted in a one night stand that was fully enjoyed on both parts. “And then I never heard from her again. I wonder where she is now,/Who she is now. That was thirty-seven years ago . . .”
Sally’s Hair is a collection of poetry not to just be enjoyed, but to awaken hidden and oppressed feelings of nostalgia and remembrance of the past, to force the reader to “take a trip down memory lane,” but to also question what they have accomplished so far, where they stand, and how they see their lives from beginning to eventual end.
If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.
Originally written on June 1st 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.