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Sally's Hair: Poems    by John Koethe order for
Sally's Hair
by John Koethe
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2007 (2006)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

John Koethe, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and the first Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, returns with his latest poetry volume, Sally's Hair. This slim but poignant collection takes us on a journey through Koethe's past and present, his thoughts and philosophies; it also addresses the fundamental nature of humanity's existence: what's it all for? Koethe is both a philosopher and a poet. He is not only a master of the writing craft, but also the contemplative craft, presenting wonderful poems that also make us think and question our own reality.

The 96-page book is split into four definitive parts. The first makes us feel as if we're sitting in a comfortable chair on a deck, the gurgling of a calming river in the background. Koethe takes us through nature and its beauty, but also through the kaleidoscope of his life, his past, and what it means to him now. 'To see things as they are is hard, / But leaving them alone is harder;' he writes in Morning. In Piranesi's Keyhole, Koethe leads us through his imagination, and what it means to have an imagination, to be able to disconnect from reality, but be left vulnerable to questioning what reality is and how different it is from imagination. On this journey through the psyche, it is easy to get lost along the way, but Koethe guides us through to the end where he gives no definite answer, but leaves the reader with a longing questioning.

The second part consists of a single, extending poem called The Unlasting, where Koethe relives the important moments of his life, and looks back, questioning what it means. He also discusses the meaning of death, the meaning of the end, questioning people's different beliefs, and faith in an ending that will supposedly continue with something else. It forces us to not only reflect on this poem of Koethe's life and eventual death, but on our own, as we wonder philosophically what the end really means, when considering the whole. Again, there are no answers, but merely thoughts and ideas to expound upon.

In the third part, Koethe questions his life up to now, as he grows older. There is the discussion of age and the concept of accomplishment from a philosophical standpoint. While he never outright says it, he is ultimately asking: what does it all mean? This is best revealed in Aubade:

'It's early, but I recognize this place.
I recognize the feeling, after an endless
Week of mornings in America, of returning
To the home one never really leaves,
Mired in its routines. I walk to what I try to
Tell myself is work, entering at the end of the day
The same room, like the man in Dead of Night –
The dinner, the DVD from Netflix,
The drink before I go to sleep and wake alone
In the dead of night like Philip Larkin
Groping through the dark at 4 a.m. to piss,
At home in the reality of growing old
Without ever growing up. I finally get up
An hour later, run, eat breakfast, read and write –
A man whose country is a state of mind,
A community of one preoccupied with time,
Leaving me with nothing much to do
But to write it off to experience – the experience
Of a rudimentary consciousness at 5 a.m.,
Aware of nothing but the drone
Of its own voice and a visual field
Composed of dogs and joggers in a park.

With this discussion of age and time, the change from then to now, in the last few poems of the section, Koethe inevitably addresses the Iraq war and the pointlessness in its death and destruction. From Poetry and the War: 'Some wars are fantasies. The bombs and deaths are real, / Yet behind them lies an argument played out in someone's mind.' It is clear where Koethe stands on this point, but it also fits in with the questions he is asking, when reaching middle age in our current time.

In the final part of this collection, Koethe has traveled through his history, relived his past, and there is now an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. Past moments are over, never to be replayed, but still there to be mentally relived. In the title poem, Sally's Hair, Koethe relives a chance encounter with a girl when he was young, which resulted in a one night stand that was fully enjoyed by both. 'And then I never heard from her again. I wonder where she is now, / Who she is now. That was thirty-seven years ago ...'

Sally's Hair is a collection of poetry to be enjoyed, but also awakening hidden and repressed feelings of nostalgia and remembrance of the past, forcing readers to take a trip down memory lane and question what we have accomplished so far, where we stand, and how we see our lives from beginning to eventual end.

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