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.


Source: North Point North: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2002)

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