Poetry

Worlds Enough and Time

John Koethe

It’s presumptuous, but if you’re reading this you
Probably know my usual obsessions and preoccupations:
The “world”—both the word and what it stands for—and time,
Which is or isn’t real, depending on my mood. I’ve always
Hated poems about philosophy, and I hope I still do,
But since I don’t know what that means anymore, here I am,
Musing on my ends and my beginnings one more time,
As though to be alive were just to wonder what they were,
While all the while inhabiting three worlds: the private world
That’s coextensive with my life and ends with it; the world
That everyone inhabits, that’s indifferent to anything that anyone
Believes or feels; and the problematic one behind them both
That spreads through time in ways that make it hard
To understand how the other two could possibly be real.

Meanwhile I’m on the balcony with a drink in my hand
And looking at the leaves. If I were a different kind of poet
I’d note the contrast with a deprecating irony and just leave
  it there,
But I’m not and I won’t. People write books about philosophy
      and physics
We’re supposed to understand and don’t, and nobody complains.
Life is more complex than either, since it includes them both,
      yet poems,
Which are simply life articulated, are supposed to be as clear as day
To anyone who takes the time to read them on the run. When
      I’m asked
What my poems say, I say that it’s whatever’s on my mind—
      for life
Means having something on your mind, whether you understand
      it or not.
Right now it’s the idea that as it flows through time the
      world keeps
Branching into versions of itself, and I do too—an idea that’s
      meant to be
Pure mathematics, though I haven’t got a clue to what it means.

Whatever else exists beyond the page of the mind, there’s
Someplace hidden from us where we don’t exist at all. I guess
It’s all around us, though by definition we don’t really know.
I went to a talk this afternoon on the quaint idea of God
Philosophers of religion love to play around with, though I didn’t
Stay for the discussion, since I didn’t want to play. I grew up
      believing
Something like it; then it disappeared. Theories have to answer
To both our private and public worlds, and that one didn’t.
Sometimes I wonder if the hidden world I do believe in isn’t
      doomed
To vanish too, since it can’t accommodate the others, as the mind
Of seventy-three can’t understand the infant consciousness it used
      to be
And can’t even imagine anymore. Confined to the imagination
Or released from it, you’re limited to what you understand and feel,
Which keeps diminishing over the years, until you’re finally
Left with nothing new to say. I hope they’ll get it right someday,
Though by then I’ll be gone. For now, feeling it’s something
I don’t understand will have to do, sitting out here on the balcony
Under the trees and an empty blue sky, looking at the leaves
And living within the limits. And anyway, it’s what I want to do.

John Koethe is the author of several collections of poetry, including Beyond Belief and Walking Backwards: Poems, 1966–2016. He has received the Lenore Marshall, Kingsley Tufts, and Frank O’Hara awards, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
Originally published:
June 1, 2022

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