Review of John Koethe’s Falling Water

by Aimée Fagent


Water represents time’s movement, changing with the age and season.  Often, imagery of water in language symbolizes the cyclical movement of nature, up and down, in and out, transforming in response to environmental changes.  Water also carries the emotional residue of lifelong sorrows.  John Koethe’s book of poetry, Falling Water, describes the process of aging like the descent of a waterfall in his title.  These poems examine the limits of human experience within time, employing rhetorical questions and lyrical descriptions to establish his philosophy.

Koethe finds home for his words in a combination of longer lined-poems and triplet stanzas of medium lines.  Like water, his lines usually run long, the movement of a cycle across a page and down, with the rhythm marked by enjambment and punctuation.  His poems recall specific places and moments alongside reflections of their significance to his life story.  Set across the landscape of America, from San Diego and Sorrento Valley to Milwaukee and Boston, we fly across the coastlands of this American presence; what it is to live in a marriage, out of a marriage, with children and without, in homes and outside, to carve an identity that is only found in the collection of everyday experiences.

Koethe begins his series “From the Porch,” where the speaker looks out on the past of “one’s childhood,/ some forty years ago,/….circa 1955” (14, 15, 17) .  He is here looking back, looking in, like an airplane overhead seeing “How inert the earth must look from far away/…. The individual days/ Too intimate to see, no matter how you tried” (6-8).   Back to the America of Normal Rockwell, with portraits of families and “Life magazine,” “wicker chairs…on the screened-in porch” (21-22), thrusts the readers into reflective memory, recalling the childhood of the past and where it was, where we are now, and why it changed. 

Throughout the collection of poems, Koethe conveys this reflective spirit through an extended metaphor of “seeing” time pass.  In his next poem, “The Constant Voice,” the speaker questions “Is it nostalgia/ For the limited that makes the days go quickly,/ Tracing out their spirals of diminishing concern?” (12-14).  After remarking on the quick passage of time, the speaker comments on the “fantasies of home one builds to rationalize/ The ordinary way one’s life has gone since then./  Words seem to crystallize that life in pictures – “ (45-47).   With a melancholic tone, the poet wonders how life can move, like water, away from its source, and yet, he holds onto the snapshots of those changing moments.

The passage of time and its constraints is a consistent motif in this collection.  While considering the bounds of human life within time, the speaker asks “Why can’t we live in some imaginary realm/ Beyond belief, in which all times seem equal, / And without the space between the way things are/ And how they merely seem?/ ….Suppose that time were nothing but erasure,/ And that years were just whatever one had lost” (Songs My Mother Taught Me,  46-49, 52-53).  In his language, Koethe wants to escape the body trapped by aging, and in this battle he determines, “Nothing lasts.  The imperative of change/ Is what the wind repeats” (IV, 26-27).  Koethe seems to find his only real liberation in the writing of these moments; a transcendence through space and time to a metaphysical realm where he can exist in observation.  Koethe finds freedom in a plane above the human realm, where “If God in Heaven were a pair of eyes/ Whose gaze could penetrate the camouflage/ Of speech and thought,/…. One remains free/ In a limited sense, and that the rough/ Approximation of eternity/ Contained in every moment is enough.” (VIII, 12-15).  Koethe likens the poet to God’s eyes, who mirrors back the record of human gain and loss in “every moment.” 

Coming toward the end of his collection, Koethe closes out his philosophy with his longer multi-page poems, Henrietta and Falling Water.  In Henrietta, the speaker describes unwritten poems as those outside the bounds of the mind: “Like an unmarked page,/ One’s universe extends beyond its comprehending mind,/ And what had seemed so momentarily clear/ In its eternal instant, flickers into obscurity/ Along the dull, unwritten passages of time” (p 51).  The speaker bounces between the evidence of time and an intangible place without boundaries.  He then concludes:


I guess what finally keeps the time are just these

Chronicles of smaller worlds

…..While something lurks beyond their borders,

Beyond our power to imagine: an elementary state

Unshaped by feeling, uncorrupted by experience

…. Bereft of human features, whose enigmatic face

Still broods behind the sky above the town –

inert and beautiful, but with the permanence of an idea

Too remote from us, and too tangible to receive.  (p 54)


Following this metaphysical realm in the conclusion of Henrietta, the poem Falling Water details the “chronicles of smaller worlds” between a husband and wife rebuilding their own little spheres after a divorce.  In the longest poem of the collection, 16 pages, Koethe explores the ultimate loss and movement, of that between two lovers away from each other.  Not only has the couple aged, but they have also distanced from their original place in the same house, same family, same love.  Like the title, the speaker remarks that “what’s lost/ Is the perception of the world as something good/ And held in common/…. What broke it into pieces?” (p 60).  Harkening back to the first poem in this book, the speaker wishes “that life could be a window on the sun,/ Instead of just this porch where I can stand and/ Contemplate the wires that lace the parking lot/ And feel it moving towards some unknown resolution” (60).  Koethe has moved from his original place of retrospection to his most intimate and vulnerable reflection upon his own marriage and its breaking.  He has guided the reader through the passing of time until we find him longing, mourning for this “Dream of love, and then the loss of love,/ And all the intricate years between” (70) as he concludes his final poem and book.

            Falling Water requires introspection and mental labor of the reader; one cannot skip easily through a history of a poet’s life, but instead must swim, as though through water, or ride, as though down a stream, into rapids of pain and upon surfaces of reflection.  The poet is both detailing his journey and asking the extent and limits of his own life, in a reflective, melancholic tone which brings the reader to a place of theory and experience, questioning the points of love and loss, and why we are bound to those moments.