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John Koethe

John Koethe

John Koethe is the author of seven books of poetry, including Falling Water (1997), which received the Kingsley Tufts Award, and Ninety-fifth Street: Poems (2009), which received the Lenore Marshall Prize. A new book, ROTC Kills, will be published in 2012. He is also the author of books on Wittgenstein and scepticism, and is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. In 2010 he was the Bain-Swiggett Professor of Poetry at Princeton.

In The Emergency Room

Like an Edward Hopper painting
Of the future—not one with shadows
Where death hides, but one bathed
In a uniform light, reducing everything,
Human and inanimate alike, to the same size.
Listening in the lobby for my name,
A minute lasts forever—the same minute
Held forever, the minute of a lifetime.
Inside the rooms the nurses come and go,
Illuminated by the florescent glow
From the hall, called by a chime. 2 A.M.,

Then 3. I watch the clock on the wall
Indifferently, dressed in a flimsy gown,
Distracted from whatever brought me here
By drugs, resting in a soft atmosphere
Of humidity and subdued sounds.
The minute hand goes around the clock face
One more time, disclosing nothing new
Beyond a slowly deepening pleasure
Not of my choosing—a vague contentment
That's enough for me now, as I lie here
In a nest of clamps and tubes and bruises,
Perambulating in a light daze of associations
Through other hospitals, other poems,

Other rooms: the dentist's waiting room
In Worcester, Massachusetts, February
Fifth, 1918, where Elizabeth Bishop's
Identity dissolved as the room gave way,
"Sliding beneath a big black wave";
A "dreary little hospital" in Mastic Beach,
Long Island, where Frank O'Hara lay
"In a bed that looked like a large crib," purple
Where the skin showed through the gown,
Stitched together with dark blue thread,
His eyelids bluish black, a tube in one nostril,
Quivering in the crib "like a shaped wound";
Or under ether in the operating room,
When the sound stops and "the mind is
Conscious but conscious of nothing."

Then it breaks. "Are you ready to go home?"
5 A.M. Outside the streets are deserted,
There's a huge white winter moon.
I wander around looking for my car,
Forget to turn on the headlights,
But I'm only three blocks from home.
We see death as an extremity, and the line
Between existence and annihilation
As bright and well-defined, though it's not.
I suppose that when the time comes,
The first and last time, one crosses it gently—
At least that's the thought, or half-thought,
Occupying my mind as I lie here
In the warmth of my bedroom—that,
And a sense of life as something fragile
And ordinary. Thud of a newspaper  
Tossed in the dark. Blood on the moon.

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