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The Proximate Shore

by John Koethe

It starts in sadness and bewilderment,
The self-reflexive iconography
Of late adolescence, and a moment

When the world dissolves into a fable
Of an alternative geography
Beyond the threshold of the visible.

And the heart is a kind of mute witness,
Abandoning everything for the sake
Of an unimaginable goodness

Making its way across the crowded stage
Of what might have been, leaving in its wake
The anxiety of an empty page.

Thought abhors a vacuum. Out of it came
A partially recognizable shape
Stumbling across a wilderness, whose name,

Obscure at first, was sooner or later
Sure to be revealed, and a landscape
Of imaginary rocks and water

And the dull pastels of the dimly lit
Interior of a gymnasium.
Is art the mirror of its opposite,

Or is the world itself a mimesis?
This afternoon at the symposium
Someone tried to resurrect the thesis

That a poem is a deflected sigh.
And I remembered a day on a beach
Thirty-five years ago, in mid-July,

The summer before I left for college,
With the future hanging just out of reach
And constantly receding, like the edge

Of the water floating across the sand.
Poems are the fruit of the evasions
Of a life spent trying to understand

The vacuum at the center of the heart,
And for all the intricate persuasions
They enlist in the service of their art,

Are finally small, disappointing things.
Yet from them there materializes
A way of life, a way of life that brings

The fleeting pleasures of a vocation
Made up of these constant exercises
In what still passes for celebration,

That began in a mood of hopelessness
On an evening in a dormitory
Years and years ago, and seemed to promise

A respite from disquietude and care,
But that left only the lovely story
Of a bright presence hanging in the air.

John Koethe

About this Poem:

Koethe’s poem reflects on the transitions and unexpected turns we encounter in life. For the speaker, these experiences are tied up with the creation of poetry, through which he has tried “to understand the vacuum at the center of the heart.”

About the Poet:

John Koethe began writing poetry in college. His most recent book, Ninety-fifth Street, won the Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Koethe grew up in San Diego.

John Koethe, “The Proximate Shore” from North Points North: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2002 by John Koethe. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.