I love the insulation of strange cities:
Living in your head, the routines of home
Becoming more and more remote,
Alone and floating through the streets
As through the sky, anonymous and languageless
Here at the epicenter of three wars. Yesterday
I took the S-Bahn into town again
To see the Kiefer in the Neue Nationalgalerie,
A burned out field with smoke still rising from the furrows
In a landscape scarred with traces of humanity
At its most brutal, and yet for all that, traces of humanity.
What makes the world so frightening? In the end
What terrifies me isn’t its brutality, its violent hostility,
But its indifference, like a towering sky of clouds
Filled with the wonder of the absolutely meaningless.
I went back to the Alte Nationalgalerie
For one last look at its enchanting show of clouds—
Constable’s and Turner’s, Ruskin’s clouds and Goethe’s
Clouds so faint they’re barely clouds at all, just lines.
There was a small glass case which held a panel
Painted by the author of a book I’d read when I was twenty-five—
Adalbert Stifter, Limestone—but hadn’t thought about in years.
Yet there were Stifter’s clouds, a pale yellow sky
Behind some shapes already indistinct (and this was yesterday),
As even the most vivid words and hours turn faint,
Turn into memories, and disappear. Is that so frightening?
Evanescence is a way of seeming free, free to disappear
Into the background of the city, of the sky,
Into a vast surround indifferent to these secret lives
That come and go without a second thought
Beyond whatever lingers in some incidental lines,
Hanging for a while in the air like clouds
Almost too faint to see, like Goethe’s clouds.
– John Koethe
From Ninety-Fifth Street by John Koethe (forthcoming from HarperCollins in September).
The poem first appeared in Berlin Journal, the magazine of the American Academy in Berlin.