book Falling Water

reviewed by Anne Doolittle

Published in Issue No. 17 ~ October, 1998

When Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house suspended over a water fall, he was fulfilling Montaigne’s belief that

Our reason has capacity enough to provide the stuff for a hundred other worlds, and then to discover their principles and construction! It needs neither matter nor foundation; let it run free; it can build as well upon the void as upon the plenum, upon space as upon matter. (“On the Lame”)

Koethe’s fourth collection of poetry explores this notion of reason building its own home. Falling Water explores architectural space as a metaphor for interior states. Or, as Koethe informs us in the title poem, Freud has speculated that “space is the projection of a ‘psychic apparatus.'” When Koethe describes the cramped apartment which he inhabits alone, he is yearning for what “Wright extols (as) ‘that primitive sense of shelter’/ Which can turn a house into a refuge from despair.” It is a philosophic yearning for logical completeness, for a house where all the rooms are full and warm and make sense. In his solitary confinement Koethe admits his failure to

Other people’s lives, and how impossible it seemed
To grasp them on the model of my own – as little
Mirrors of infinity– or sense their forms of
Happiness, or in their minor personal upheavals
Feel the sweep of time reduced to human scale
And see its abstract argument made visible.

Koethe’s expansive lines and infrequent use of stanza breaks in discursive meditative pieces reflect his inability to find adequate rooms for his vision of reality. Often the quest to find an architectural model for his psychic state leads Koethe into nostalgia and his remembered visions of human space are “suffused with light” giving them the feel of a Merchant-Ivory film or a Ralph Lauren interior. “From the Porch,” for example, gives the reader “a breeze rustl(ing through) the pages of Life magazine,” and “one’s childhood (as a) small midwestern town/Some forty years ago, before the elm trees died.” This nostalgic theme runs throughout the book for Koethe feels himself isolated and estranged by ordinary spaces.

The idea of Falling Water as an external structure for internal feeling also serves as a metaphor for Koethe’s conception of memory. In the title poem, real falling water dissipates into an idealized recollection of water that corresponds to the speaker’s struggle with loss and despair. In “The Constant Voice” Koethe focuses on memory as a fictional construct. Memories of books are little villages we invent and re-inhabit whenever we want to call them into being, as a way of building space for ourselves that reaches beyond the ordinary. The constant voice, which Koethe finally gets to after fifty three (out of sixty-two) lines, is never heard. What is heard? Disappointment that the voice comes only from “(t)rails with nothing waiting for me at the end.” But Koethe prefers wayward trails of indirection as a means of getting to the point. Also, he rarely gives concrete evidence to illustrate or enliven his meditations. One of his theses is that the concrete cannot be recaptured to embody the eternal. The architect/poet’s concrete rendering can only capture an ever-changing illusion. “Argument in Isolation” asserts that

…..the truest language is the one translated by the leaves
When the wind blows through them. And the truest
Statement is the one asserted by the sun

Koethe uses complex diction and convoluted syntax because he does not believe words capable of rendering the veracity of his feelings, as in “A Pathetic Landscape” when he asks


Is plain language anyway? Is it the one you think,
Or hear, or one that you imagine? Can it incorporate
The numinous as well as the particular, and the ways
Ideas move, and the aftertaste that conviction leaves
Once its strength has faded? I don’t believe it anymore,
But I can hear it sighing in the wind, and feel it in the
Movement of the leaves outside my window…..

This is really something. Here we have a poet admitting, in poetry, his failure as a poet.

But Koethe’s enterprise is not to attempt creation, but to comment on the process of creation as in “The Secret Amplitude,” a poem that celebrates ‘no things but feelings.’ Pure feeling is the essence to be derived from the commonplace and ordinary, for “…… over time, the personal details / Came to mean less to me than the feeling;” and “the imperative of change” required “displacement of the ordinary.” One could argue that if works of art are illusions or fictions, as it seems obvious that they are, then in their rendering they are automatically displacements of the ordinary. At the same time, works of art rely on a semblance of reality and an allegiance to accurate portrayal of the ordinary to communicate. Koethe has great difficulty connecting the secret amplitude (which unravels in solitude) with concrete, physical, ordinary materials. In “Early Morning in Milwaukee” the speaker admits “most of what I feel remains unknown/…../..I know I should explain it,/ Only I know I can’t…..” The amplitude, though ample, is after all secret.

Even though there are beautiful and provocative thoughts in this book, Koethe errs too much toward philosophical commentary. Beautiful or even credible experience is missing. His meditative lines rely on analytical statement more than imagery to sketch or portray his meanings. Koethe doesn’t believe in a common reality available to the artistic enterprise. One could argue that he doesn’t believe in a common language either. Both beliefs seem reasonable enough, but ultimately self-defeating for any poet. Koethe and Montaigne must not be talking about the same capacity for reason. Where one posits the capacity to construct hundreds of other worlds out of nothing, the other posits only the capacity to construct limited spaces out of a private and closely held plenum. And Wright’s monumental vision in designing a house suspended over a water fall is rendered through Koethe’s vision as something more like falling house.

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ANNE DOOLITTLE is a graduate of the M.F.A. writing program at Bennington College and has a Masters degree in Education from Vanderbilt. Her poems have appeared in Boston Reveiw and on-line at Grepoetry, Conspire, and Zuzu's Petals Quarterly.