The Poetry of Ted Kooser
I have been reading the poetry of Ted Kooser for forty years, but lately I have tried to articulate and explain why I like his poems so much. Having read and reread many of his books this year, I think it is due to two things. One is his attachment to the fields, prairies and towns of the Midwest in which he grew up, born in Ames, Iowa, and moving eventually to an acreage near Garland, Nebraska. He knows the trees, plants, rivers and critters very well (especially the birds) and evokes the inhabitants very well (those he lives with and those he sees at a glance) along with, notably, the mechanical devices, machines and cars they use at home, on the streets and in the fields. This explains the second reason I admire his poems: his power of metaphorical transformation, of metamorphosis. His poems turn a flashlight into the moon (in the eyes of critters) and a dead fly into a crashed black sedan; a dog’s whimper becomes the whine of a chilly wind, a ruined church turns into a barn, hen houses and a bell for the firehouse, and the wind becomes an old man in an apple orchard. These transformations are always surprising, but they are never frivolous or arbitrary: when Kooser mixes up and identifies things we usually think of as quite disparate, he always manages to reveal hidden aspects of reality, of life.
I think I feel especially strongly about his work now because last summer I went to visit a friend of mine from high school, Ruth Geyer Shaw, who is a population geneticist who works (among other things) on prairies restoration in Minnesota. I’m using her work as one of two case studies at the end of my new book on philosophy of biology; the other is about the work of one of my brothers, Ted Grosholz, a marine biologist in California. We visited a number of Ruth’s field sites across the state, and I discovered the fields and prairies of the Midwest for the first time and learned why Minnesota is called “the land of ten thousand lakes.” Before that, my only other Midwestern adventures were flying from Kansas to visit the Wizard of Oz, because my grandmother in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, lived right next door to Ruth Plumly Thompson. She took over the Oz series from L. Frank Baum in 1921; her friends called her “Oz,” and I remember visiting her a number of times as a child while reading all the Oz books. But, back to reality: in this essay, I’ll discuss in some detail the first book of Kooser’s I read, Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems, Winter Morning Walks, Splitting an Order, and the last section, “New Poems,” of Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems. I should mention that his book Delights & Shadows (Copper Canyon Press, 2004) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, but for that very reason it has been amply discussed, especially since between 2004 and 2006, he was the Poet Laureate of the United States.
So, let us go back to Sure Signs. Kooser’s choice of “Sure Signs” as the title poem for the book is wise, not least because this poem is about a certain kind of wisdom born of experience. It also turns the cry of crickets into the music of sleigh bells and reminds us why sleigh bells were created in the first place: a sleigh cannot stop easily, so the bells were to warn other people about what is coming. And then his neighbor connects the crickets with cobwebs.
So many crickets tonight—
like strings of sleigh bells!
“A long hard winter ahead
for sure,” my neighbor says,
reeling a cobweb onto
a broom in his garden.
“Crickets and cobwebs,” he says,
“sure signs. In seventy years
(he looks out over his glasses
to see if I’m still there)
you get to know a thing or two.”
Remember the first question posed by the song “Winter Wonderland”: “Sleigh bells ring. Are you listening?” We should all listen, because his neighbor knows what he’s talking about.
This prediction leads us back to the beginning of the book and the poem “First Snow.” Initially it seems to be about his old dog with a bad leg, who is not enthusiastic as the people in the house remind each other that no two snowflakes are alike and tell stories about snow. But the poem is transformed and acquires new meaning at the end when the winter night becomes a dog.
. . . The kitchen is a kindergarten
steamy with stories. The dog gets stiffly up
and limps away, seeking a quiet spot
at the heart of the house. Outside,
in silence, with diamonds on his fur,
the winter night curls round the legs of the trees,
sleepily blinking snowflakes from his lashes.
Where does one dog end and the other begin? No two dogs, like snowflakes, are alike, but we can’t help feeling that these two are closely related. Kooser, on the evidence of his poems over many years, is very attached to his dogs, but he also likes to call upon the sky, winter or summer.
One of my favorite poems comes two pages later, “The Constellation Orion.” This is one of my very favorites, both because I wrote lots of poems about my kids when they were young, and also recently, as a philosopher, I was studying cosmology. It is really a thrill to recognize (in the sky or through a telescope) a constellation. For some years because of a divorce, Kooser had to drive many miles to pick up his son for weekend visits; this poem among others shows his affection, endurance, and his sense of humor as his son plays with words and turns the constellation into a person.
I’m delighted to see you,
lying in your hammock
over the next town.
You were the first person
my son was to meet in the heavens.
He’s sleeping now,
His head like a small sun in my lap.
Our car whizzes along in the night.
If he were awake, he’d say,
“Look, Daddy, there’s Old Ryan!”
but I won’t wake him.
He’s mine for the weekend,
Old Ryan, not yours.
The evening sky comes back a few pages later in the poem “August,” first as a cicada shell and broken lantern and then as the poet himself.
The cicada shell
clings to a day in the past,
its broken lantern
dusty with evening light.
Walking alone toward the house,
my life is a moon
in the frail blue branches
of my veins.
Kooser captures both the wild and the towns and the fields that link them with his Ovidian habits. Indeed, Ovid shows up in the poem “In the Kitchen, at Midnight,” where he addresses a cockroach. At the end of the poem, he admonishes the bug about war and politics and the importance of democracy, but at the beginning he witnesses how it is able to transform itself in order to escape and save itself.
I snap on the light
and a cockroach
zips over the floor
like a skateboard
and without slowing down
skims under the door
to the cupboard,
becoming a can
of tomatoes. How
Ovid would love it!
So, it’s no surprise when we encounter the metamorphosis of other aspects of the world outside the house. “A Frozen Stream” was a snake who sparkled, inspiring the old trees to keep on growing in summer.
This snake has gone on,
all muscle and glitter,
into the woods,
a few leaves clinging,
red, yellow and brown.
Oh, how he sparkled!
The roots of the old trees
Famed as he passed.
But in winter and the next stanza the frozen stream is just an old skin with a few sharp stones (as in a graveyard) poking through. And then in spring, everything changes again because of “Spring Plowing,” which turns the fields into smelly lakes and the field mice into nomads with carts and covered lanterns trying to avoid the owls.
West of Omaha the freshly plowed fields
stream in the night like lakes.
The smell of the earth floods over the roads.
The field mice are moving their nests
to the higher ground of fence rows,
the older among them crying to the owls
to take them all. The paths in the grass
are loud with the squeak of their carts.
They keep their lanterns covered.
This poem reminds us of the disruption we humans visit on other creatures.
And in the poems “In the Corners of Fields” and “So This Is Nebraska,” Kooser transforms everything while somehow making his evocation of the landscape even more compelling. In the former, the fence wire suns itself, the stones become warm litters, the No Hunting signs have faces and mutter to the wind, dry horse tanks turn into fountains of sunflowers, and a moth fearlessly ends the poem as it
. . . flutters in from the pasture,
harried by sparrows,
and alights on a post,
so sure of its life
that it peacefully opens its wings.
In the latter poem, the gravel road becomes a horse slowly galloping over the field, the dust of the telephone lines mixes with the sparks of redwing blackbirds, the barns are dear old ladies, a meadowlark waits on every post, and a shelterbelt of cedar trees is full of hollyhocks, pollen and bees. (A shelterbelt is a line of trees or shrubs planted to protect fields from strong winds and erosion; the Great Plants Shelterbelt was created in 1934 as response to the Dust Bowl on the initiative of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.) But there in behind the shelterbelt is a wrecked pickup truck, settling down and reading the clouds. The tired poet is tempted by its apparent peace but resists.
You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,
clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man on your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like
waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.
So instead of sinking, the poet decides to fly as he discovers Nebraska, where he still lives, larklike; we are grateful as he takes us with him over the wheat and the houses.
But in this book, there are many poems about empty houses, as well as abandoned trucks and barns. In his poems about them, lyric is often combined with narrative, often sad and sometimes tragic. Around 1980, the Midwest was in trouble economically because traditional manufacturing was on a downslide driven by the rise of new technology and the continued expansion of large-scale farming, and also by outsourcing to other countries, which explains in part some of the emptiness.
“Tom Ball’s Barn” begins with an explanation but ends with a mystery about the death of Tom Ball.
The loan that built the barn
just wasn’t big enough
to buy the paint, so the barn
went bare and fell apart
at the mortgaged end of twelve
nail-popping, splintering winters.
And so, the poet learns from the barber, one thing led to another, and finally many things were to blame
. . . for the barn’s collapse
on everything he owned, thus
leading poor Tom’s good health
to diabetes and
the swollen leg that threw him
off the silo, probably
dead (the doctor said)
before he hit that board pile.
But was it an accident, or suicide? Human constructions leave both clues and mysteries, because of the way we build them and write on them, leaving traces: how are we to read them?
The poem “North of Alliance” addresses this question. At the beginning we learn that those who departed from the empty house left no furniture or old newspapers or indications of their style. However, they did leave some marks.
. . . But wait:
here, penciled in inches
up the doorframe, these little marks
mark the growth of a child
impatient to get on with it,
a child stretching his neck
in a hurry to leave nothing here
but an absence grown tall in a doorway.
What became of the child, and the family? This question about a child is echoed in an inverse and more personal way in “After My Grandmother’s Funeral,” where the poet goes back to his grandmother’s house to sleep in the attic: he could sleep but not dream.
. . . the coffin of that attic
was not to be borne aloft
on the good shoulders of cousins;
nor was it to roll on chrome wheels
to an altar with candles;
nor was I to awaken to find
my fingers laced loosely
over my heart. No dream came then
to help me leap over
the years to my death.
I awakened still young,
still sad, no longer welcome
in that darkening house.
And once the parents and grandparents disappear, the old homes disappear with them because they no longer light up the house and welcome you in. However, in his wonderful book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard explains poetically and philosophically how the house of childhood stays with us nonetheless, organizing space and time. We live in that house at first and then afterwards when we grow up and have to leave, it lives in us. The attic and the basement are often where we put the past, those odd parts of the house in which we don’t really live, but they know they are there. So Kooser writes the poem about his grandmother’s attic and stays there and cannot stay.
The book ends with the poem “Sunday Morning,” which explains that there are different kinds of redemption. June returns; the maple seeds are stars; the mourning dove becomes a piano player and singer; the Sunday paper has a big bridal section with smiles and starlit clouds and a nuptial moon; cars become canoes; the church bell sings to the trees as well as to us. And the mourning dove who at the beginning of the poem “touches her keyboard twice, a lonely F, / and then falls silent,” just at the end is surprised, as are we. Love is the secret.
The church bell strides through the green perfume
of locust trees and tolls its thankfulness.
The mourning dove, to her astonishment,
blunders upon a distant call in answer.
The next book introduces a number of new dimensions to Ted Kooser’s poetry. Winter Morning Walks was written (just at the turn of the century) after he was diagnosed and treated for cancer, which left his skin very sensitive so that he could only go for walks at dawn, sometimes with his wife Kathleen Rutledge, more often alone. At first he was very depressed and stopped writing, but in the fall and winter of 1998 he starting writing “postcard poems” to his friend Jim Harrison after every walk at dawn: this book is the compilation of 100 such poems, and on the cover, the lovely picture of snow on the fields was painted by Kooser himself. This led to a co-authored book with Harrison, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry. It also led to an album and CD, Winter Morning Walks, in which the jazz musician Maria Schneider (composing rather classically) set nine of those poems to music so that soprano Dawn Upshaw could sing them; both Schneider and Upshaw are very prominent artists, and the songs transform the already moving poems.
This album was awarded three Grammys. Maria Schneider won Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Dawn Upshaw won Best Classical Vocal Solo Performance, and David Frost, Tim Martyn and Brian Losch won Best Engineered Album, Classical.
I had the chance to ask Maria Schneider about her process of turning the poems into songs, and she sent me a very thoughtful reply, which explains why her songs are so singable and true to the poetry. She wrote,
I was so in love with all of Ted Kooser’s poetry but was especially drawn to his poems in Winter Morning Walks while thinking about setting his poetry to music. As a composer, you have certain practical parameters to consider, like length and language—and how it all might translate into song. Winter Morning Walks had so many poignant poems and some that were short: both those aspects were great from a practical stance. So, I chose about 25 or 30 that I particularly loved and could imagine speaking effectively as music. I xeroxed them, cut them out, and taped them all over a huge sheet of paper so I’d have every one in front of me, and then I just sat at the piano with them for weeks: me with the sound of Dawn Upshaw in my head (she has in her voice the same kind of humanity I feel from Ted’s poems), and me just jotting down sounds as they came. I muddled my way through, feeling out harmonic colors and melodic contours that seemed like a natural outgrowth of the poems, and some started to emerge like contestants in a pageant. There were a couple of poems I so wanted to use, but I didn’t come up with the right sound for them. However, I still have those in my head for the future: maybe I’m just meant to love them as poems, or maybe I’m waiting to become good enough, or simply to find that right sonic expression. As I worked, I spoke the poems aloud and sang lines with the poetry and the lines of poetry had a rhythm and contour that I tried to honor in the music. I didn’t want to do some crazy deconstruction of poetry that has so much humanity in it, and I didn’t want to appear as the “composer.” I wanted the poems to emerge in song form—to reach people the way they reach me. I wanted purely to honor the honesty and beauty of these poems. I love this man’s poetry, and he’s made my life so much the better: that song cycle is one of my favorite things I’ve written—maybe my favorite. Well, it’s half Ted’s, so I only had to take it half the way to the finish line.
Here at the end, we can see the composer also shares with Kooser a certain poetic sense of humor.
One of the poems featured in this account of their project (still available on YouTube) is the poem from November 18, especially touching and funny.
Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning,
my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side,
coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,
each watching from darkness
this man with the moon on a leash.
The wild animals “watching from darkness” metamorphose the poet to a godlike figure with “the moon on a leash” like those domesticated dogs they feel sorry for. Schneider notes that she has always been fond of Kooser’s poems because they bring her back home (she was born in Minnesota) and because of their poetic surprises: a flashlight becomes the moon and a compliant dog. So, she also chose this poem, written on November 14.
My wife and I walk the cold road
in silence, asking for thirty more years.
There’s a pink and blue sunrise
with an accent of red:
a hunter’s cap burns like a coal
in the yellow-gray eye of the woods.
Kooser, a painter as well as a poet, notes colors very precisely, and they often help him with his transformations: so here the rising sun becomes a red hunter’s cap and a burning coal, and the woods grow a yellow-gray eye to watch it. So too in the poem from March 16, the color red works its magic.
Spring, the sky rippled with geese,
but the green comes on slowly,
timed to the ticking of downspouts.
The pond, still numb from months
of ice, reflects just one enthusiast
this morning, a budding maple
whose every twig is strung with beads
of carved cinnabar, bittersweet red.
To read the signs of spring, we have to turn from the conventional green to almost hidden buds on the maple tree with their delicate red, but then we have to be able to recognize a maple tree: Kooser is very good at naming trees and birds as well as various fish and land critters.
Another of these poems, dated February 19, however, reminds us that people need to remember the extent to which their building and technology, amazing as they are, disrupt the lives of creatures in the world, so that we should do what we can to limit our impact.
When I switched on a light in the barn loft
late last night, I frightened four flickers
hanging inside, peering out through their holes.
Confused by the light, they began to fly
wildly from one end to the other,
their yellow wings slapping the tin sheets
on the roof, striking the walls, scrabbling
and falling. I cut the light
and stumbled down and out the door and stood
in the silent dominion of starlight
till all five of our hearts settled down.
This poem, metaphorically, suggests what we might do: among other things, turn some of the lights off.
The next book, Splitting an Order, published in 2014, takes us into the new century and lives up to its title. Among other things, it shows us how married people share and order their lives and how a poet can do the same. The order of the book is split into three parts. In the first section, the title poem describes a couple sharing their lunch; it’s not clear if Kooser intends the poem to be understood first or third person (or both) and if the couple are sharing because of limited resources but still really enjoy eating out. Is he looking at them through the window of a restaurant or is he remembering aspects of his last meal with his wife?
I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife, and her fork in their proper places,
then smoothes the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.
Notice how much order (of different kinds) the poem contains: quite a bit of rhyme and slant-rhyme hidden away in the lines, the careful cutting of the sandwich, the unrolling of the napkin and placement of spoon, knife, fork “in their proper places.” But all of this is not mere order because it is motivated by mutual caring and sharing, summed up by the way they look at each other at the end.
Caring deeply for others brings its joys and sorrows. In the poem “Bad News,” the house and its telephone and lights become figures for how we feel when bad news arrives in the dead of night. You turned on a light to get to the telephone, but it wasn’t enough to let you deal with the grief, even though expected.
. . . you move on cold feet room to room,
feeling as weightless as a soul,
turning on every light in the house,
needing the light all around you
because it’s a new day now, though still
in darkness, hours before dawn,
a day you’ll learn to call that day,
the first morning after it happened.
And though we turn all the lights on in the house, the darkness of mortality doesn’t go away and stays with us because we remember that delivery of bad news and relive it. This cancelation of time is a counterintuitive way to deal with death that arises from the passage of time, but it is what we do.
But love brings joy as well. In the poem “Swinging from Parents,” Kooser revives a memory (perhaps of one of his two granddaughters) and turns the child’s funny way of walking with her parents into a meditation on time and trust as well as the process of learning to spell and pronounce and remember words.
The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and an e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever. It’s that forever
the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
singing her feet out over the world.
And her parents encourage her to put her trust in forever, which helps her go forward, though we parents know nothing is forever. But she’ll learn that later, when she’s old enough.
In the third and last section of this book, in fact, there are poems for Kooser’s own father, both poems of mourning and memories of how he took care of his family. Those poems are foreshadowed by the poem “Snapshot.” The invention of photography in the nineteenth century added a strange dimension to memory: even after the bad news of their death, people still look back at us from their pictures.
Light’s hand is swift, its penmanship
neat and precise. It jotted down a memo
on this square of paper, then left it behind,
a lost list of shadows burned by a paper clip
rusting away. Five men in half-light,
standing under the roof of an open porch,
holding a string of dead mallards.
One man grins and points at the camera,
his fingertip bright as a spark, reaching out,
touching the shimmering film of the future.
Especially when one of the subjects reaches out to us, it is as if he can see us here in the future as the light itself is writing him down.
The second section of Splitting an Order begins with the wonderful long poem “Estate Sale,” but after that it is mostly devoted to critters, explaining poetically why we need to pay attention to them. The first poem is located in an abandoned house, where everything must go.
At a broken window, an old cobweb
wadded and rolled by the wind:
one of those long woolen stockings
your grandmother wore.
But Kooser is interested not only by the cobweb, but by human artifacts, machines, cars, sports equipment (the kinds of things we leave behind), which he enjoys metamorphosing just as much as trees and people. A baseball with a split seam becomes a planet with one of its mountain ranges blown open; a section of unused stovepipe turns out to be like somebody’s unsnapped and open coat; five or six feet of heavy black electrical wire becomes a lariat; the 25-amp glass fuse turns into a frozen stream with “the silver ribbon / of a motionless fish” down below; dime-store photos are black bats waiting at the edges; two brass hinges are books, and you read them, warm and cold; a packet of spinach seeds, pillaged, is “a tiny brown leather valise / packed with green scarves”; the billfold becomes a clam and the buffalo nickel a pearl. And then the poem ends with the most surprising and saddest thing in the house that used to make music.
And among these homely things,
an antique gilded harp,
its dusty strings like a curtain
drawn over the silence,
stroked by fingers of light.
Who will buy the harp at the Estate Sale and let it sing again? Who used to play it? Was it a grandmother with long woolen stockings?
However, meanwhile the poet has many critters to transform, which may lead us to wonder about his affiliation with Aesop or Lewis Carroll or E. B. White. In each of these poems, there is a real concern and admiration for each creature as well as curiosity. In “Opossum,” Kooser once again turns on a light, this time in the barn, but the opossum is not startled as the poet pauses to admire it first and then has second thoughts.
. . . You have soft fur
like milkweed down, and bright black eyes
alive with all the big and little things
you’ve learned from midnight, using
your soft pink nose and your restless
pink fingers. It is those fingers that might
make a person fear you, since they seem
almost human, greedy and dangerous.
I think you may know this, because you
slowly turned toward me and lifted
one of your hands to show me how it could
grasp and squeeze a tiny piece of the light
that fell between us, and even a piece
of my breath.
The poet notices the opossum’s colors and its behavior and shares a bit of fear with us, losing his breath and the last bit of the line at the end of the poem. Two pages later, when he turns on a floor lamp in “A Visitation at Five A.M.,” a tiny moth also changes his mind in a different way. First the moth, just visible, becomes a surprising collection of things associated with different senses:
. . . gray upon gray
like a dirty city, wings coated with odors
and noise, the beep of a backing truck,
the smell from a seafood restaurant,
waxy sweetness of lipstick.
But then the light of the lamp grows stronger,
. . . it was gone, smoke to the shadows,
taking with it the fur collar that brushes
my cheek, a wisp of hair across my lips,
the request that the band never played,
and it was morning, and the house was cold.
The moth that never returns reminds us of other experiences that will never return because they might have happened but never did.
Light and a pregnant and willful mouse are also transformed in the poem “Lanterns.” Kooser remembers a farmer whose lantern was a “pinch of light” before dawn when he went to his barn to milk the cows. But when those years came to an end, he frugally saves a dollar, which also saves a mouse.
But at the last he thought to leave
a fresh ribbon of wick coiled up
in the chimney in case it was ever
needed again, a dollar’s worth
of preparation. And, getting prepared
for a later winter, a pregnant mouse
was able to squeeze through a vent
and unravel that wick and made
a cottony nest with dusty,
panoramic windows, and there to raise
her bald and mewling, pissy brood,
and then for them to disappear,
the way we all, one day, move on,
leaving a little sharp whiff
of ourselves in the dirty bedding.
On the next page, a dead fly becomes a wrecked black sedan, but after that surprise, another appears in the poem “Garrison, Nebraska,” near where Kooser lives: the prairie becomes a sea, “to be pounded and pounded forever / by time and these whitecaps of snow.” And on the next pages, the critters and trees are set afloat. In the poem “A Mouse in a Trap,” reflections of mortality are given in nautical terms.
A tiny wood raft was afloat
on the cold gray sea
of the cellar floor, and to it
a dead mouse clung,
trailing its legs and tail, the ship
of the rest of its life
swallowed up without leaving
so much as a ripple.
I felt the firm deck of the day
tilt just a little, as if all of us
living, surviving, had rushed
to one side to look down.
Even the mortality of a trapped mouse echoes for the rest of us on the firm deck of the poem. Likewise, on the next page in the poem “A Wasp’s Nest,” a wasp constructs her nest on the door of the house of the poet and his wife, where there hangs an antique bell cast in brass. They don’t mind, so the wasp (though heavy with eggs) goes on constructing her nest and singing:
. . . her hot whine teases a note
from the bell, clear and haunting,
guiding us on through the narrows
and into the generations.
And on the next page in the poem “Tree Removal” an elm tree that is long past its prime ensures, after all those years of “service / fishing for weather,” endures wave after wave of the chainsaw.
But then the tree makes its exit with grace,
going down slowly, one piece at a time,
hauling in the cool net of its shadow
and patiently folding it
into the boat of the clouds.
On the boat of the clouds, we steer into the third and last section of the book, which is mostly about people, some happily present and some lost. The first poem, “At the Kitchen Table,” might remind us of “Splitting an Order,” but the people at the table are not dividing a sandwich but rather sharing stories, which is another kind of opening, open wings like open arms. The stories are quite birdlike.
Not a flock of stories,
but a few that arrive at dusk,
in pairs, quietly
in the feathery light.
And rarely with fancy plumage
of blue or green or red
but plain, as of clay or wood,
with a plain little song.
Theirs are the open wings
we light our table by.
But what about the people you can’t talk to anymore, even though in many different ways they are still there? You can light them up in a poem like “Closing the Window,” where Kooser remembers what his father did when he saw ‘the uncertain white fingers’ of lightning followed by the sound of thunder and the tapping of rain. His father always went around the house
. . . closing
the windows, no word from him
who swept through the house
like a flashing shadow, but a chatter
of leaves blown over the shingles,
the clunk of sash weights
deep in the walls, then the storm
muffled by spattered glass.
It was so ordinary then
to see him at the foot of the bed,
closing the squeaky windows,
but more than sixty years have passed
and now I understand that is was
not so ordinary after all.
But his family worried about their father in the middle of the night as well, as the poem “Sleep Apnea” shows, though he was probably unaware of their anxiety. In this poem we hear him snoring.
Night after night, when I was a child,
I woke to the guttering candle
of my father’s breath. It made a sound
like the starlings that sometimes
got caught in our chimney, a chirping
that would gradually, steadily build
to a desperate, flat slapping of wings,
then suddenly drop into silence,
into the thick soot at the bottom
of midnight. No silence was ever
so deep. And then, after maybe
a minute or two, I would hear
a twitter as he came to life again . . .
He and his mother and sister would listen to death “kiss the fluttering lips” of the father, who slept through it all, though none of the rest of them did. And then two pages later, there is his grandfather breathing dangerously in a different way, in the short poem “Grandfather.”
A breeze chased his pipe smoke
out over the river, and later he followed,
carrying all of his tackle.
Almost the last poem in the book, “Those Summer Evenings,” adds an unexpected dimension to Kooser’s account of how his father took care of his family. At first, we just see him out watering with the garden hose and clipping some bushes to window height. He’s doing that for two different reasons,
. . . so that later
as we slept atop our rumpled sheets
with windows open to the scritch
of crickets, whatever breeze
might flirt its way between
our house and the neighbors’
would brush across the honeysuckle,
sweet and wet, and keep us cool.
So, thanks to his wise father what comes in the house on summer nights is an orderly combination: musical, comfortably cool and sweet. (What smells better than honeysuckle?) This poem is indebted to Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” that was also written to thank his own father, and it is one of Kooser’s favorites.
In 2018, Copper Canyon Press published Ted Kooser’s Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems, dedicated to his parents Ted and Vera. We’ve already discussed many of the poems in this book, but the section ‘New Poems’ takes up the last sixty pages. It’s divided into three sections, and the first is full of parents and grandparents as well as colors, music and boats: most of the boats are on river or lakes but a few are at sea, so far away. The poet introduces us to his Grandmother Kooser in the poem “A Bottle Collection” by mentioning that she had “a collection / of tiny glass bottles, the kind for perfume, / arranged in the sun on the sill of a window / partway up the stairs.” But she only went up and down the stairs twice a day because she had to use a cane, and it was painful to go up and down in her dark, rather dingy rented house where her husband died. Why does the bottle collection deserve a poem? Because it transformed her days.
. . . But those bottles brightened
that place on the staircase, with pale pinks
and blues, gay yellows and greens, their
crystal stoppers sparkling, and though much
had been taken from her she had this,
a moment at that window twice each day,
in which she’d pause, and catch her breath,
and sometimes lift a bottle to the light.
So, we might all look for two moments that we could use to redeem the day, every day, holding it up to the light.
And on the next page, his maternal grandfather is conjured up by a picture of a ship and by the only suit he owned. When the poem “The Clipper Ship” begins, the poet is a young person at loose ends in Iowa.
There was a cheaply framed clipper flying in full sail
over the sofa, and it leaned just a little into the glass
as if to look down on me lying there bored, and it carried
more sail than anything in Iowa . . .
The boy broods about the faraway sea and finds the overstuffed sofa “heavy and brown as a barge” and notes that it smells odd.
. . . it smelled like
the one suit in my grandfather’s closet, and angry blue
like the sea in the picture, and as I lay there, climbing
the main mast’s springy rigging onto a lofty spar
where I could look down on myself, I could see the sofa
slowly sinking, the carpet all patterned by flotsam
slapping against it, and I wondered, as one might wonder,
would the ship arrive in time to save me,
or would I, hanging high in the rigging, wave it on.
The grandfather might venture a guess, but he isn’t there anymore. Nor are his parents, though he still talks to them (as many of us do, sometimes by writing poems to them). In the poem “Parents,” his parents appear mysteriously in his house, both of them still trying to be helpful, but somehow he always just misses them when they visit.
My dead parents try to keep out of my way.
When I enter a room they have already left it,
gone off to find something that ought to be done
elsewhere in the house, my dad rolling the Hoover,
my mother with dust rag and Pledge. At times
I’ve heard their old slippers, pattering away
down the hall, or seen for only an instant
what might be the hem of her skirt as it swept
through a door. I leave all the cleaning supplies
where they’re easy to find, and they seem to last
forever. “You don’t need to go!” I call out
through the echoing rooms, but they’ve never
turned back. They leave the floors shining
behind them, and remember to turn off the lights.
His parents aren’t just ghosts, because they do useful work and leave a shine. Of course, we might imagine that because they taught him to use a Hoover, he is the person who was able to make the floor shine, but the poem leaves us up in the air. We might say, it makes us wonder if the house contains a part of heaven?
Such reflections lead to the next section, in which quite often the Ovidian poet transforms earth to heaven and vice versa: this sometimes happens on the surface of lakes. The second section is organized by the seasons, beginning in February and ending in December, and once again the poet (often accompanied by his wife Kathleen) goes out walking in all seasons, noticing things, writing them down and turning them upside down to display hidden meanings. In the poem “In Early April,” the poet gets his inspiration from pelicans.
A white spiral of pelicans slowly drains down
out of a pink late afternoon, settling onto a pond
far in the distance, its surface reflecting the sky
like an opening, a second sky showing through
from beneath, the prairie no more than a film
between the heaven above us and another below,
the pelicans all of one mind, gliding down,
none of them beating one wing in resistance,
before passing through to the bright other side.
The prairie and the pond have their heavenly aspects, and the creatures of the sky (pelicans but perhaps also angelic ghosts) also see the reflecting pond as home and a way to arrive “to the bright other side.”
The poem “Snapping Turtle” is inspired by that very creature, though he is fiercer than the birds and down there in the water, where he alters “the film between the heavens” with his bare hands.
A piece of bark fallen into the pond
will eventually soak and sink, but not
this chunk of darkness, floating inches
beneath the surface, in which a cloud’s
reflection is dimpled a little, as if by
the touch of a finger, though no one
dare touch it. And suddenly it isn’t
an it at all, the mirrored water
altogether empty, just as it was before,
no shadow there, a floating cloud.
But then he dives deeper, and the floating cloud resumes its part in the film without shadows. What happens to the film between heaven and earth when there is fog on the lake and someone is talking but you can’t hear him, “only a few / unintelligible syllables flapping in / over the water”? There was also “the flat thunk of a bucket.” What was the invisible man saying? These questions arise in the poem “Walking by Fog beside a Lake,” and Kooser addresses them in his sidelong fashion.
Though we were talking a moment ago,
my wife and I fall silent, nor does the man
in the boat say anything more to whoever
is with him. For a time we are held there
together, listening into the fog,
and then a wave, unable to hold its breath
any longer, rolls out of the silence
and splashes its voice on the rocks
at our feet, and the morning starts up
like an outboard and slowly moves on.
It doesn’t really matter what the man said, because the water talks to them, and heavenly-earthly morning carries them out on the lake so they can all move on.
The last section of “New Poems” is full of people, but mostly they are glimpsed at a distance by the poet driving by, or noticing them in a furniture store or a doctor’s office or a laundromat, or even in a famous painting by Brueghel, Hunters in the Snow. There is also the odd uncle and a man waxing a hallway. What is striking about all these poems, and characteristic of Ted Kooser himself, is the poet’s sympathy and ability to share that sympathy through details. In just a glimpse he sees the troubles, the courage, the complications of sorrow and joy that look out from the faces of those people who appear and disappear but share the world with us. The courage, lived experience and peril of a garbage collector is turned into a dance that ends grimly.
A tiny ballerina of a man, no bigger than a child,
rides on the back of a garbage truck in T-shirt,
jeans, and fluorescent chartreuse vest, hanging on
to the barre, pointing one foot in its dirty sneaker,
stretching the muscles in that thigh and calf,
throwing his long hair back, closing his eyes, holding
his face to the light, waiting to step down into
first position, there to be joined by an older man,
who comes skipping around from the driver’s side,
the two of them now in a practiced pas de deux
of the orchestra swirling them on: percussion
of galvanized cans, cymbals of lids, and then all
the instruments joined in one thunderous clamor
as the great chord in the back grinds slowly open,
met by the wild applause of a thousand flies.
The skill you need to do this work and not fall off the truck might be like ballet, but let’s not forget that the audience is made up of a thousand flies.
Then one night, Kooser catches sight of two people he can’t forget. He couldn’t stop, but he could write the poem “Two by the Road.” Let’s not forget those for whom in the past decades we built housing developments.
Yesterday evening, driving home on the highway
in traffic, I passed them, on the edge of the city
where a housing development sits back of a berm
with only its roofs showing over the top. A woman
and a small child were sitting in wind on the slope,
looking down on the traffic, the child folded into
the arms of the woman, both wearing thin jackets.
The grass where they sat had been flattened
by snow that had only recently melted. I passed
in an instant, the two growing small in my mirror.
I imagined they’d climbed, mitten in mitten, up
and over the berm from one of the houses behind,
to sit watching the traffic stream out of the city,
the child warm in the arms of the woman,
and the woman warmed by the child. Miles after
seeing them falling behind me, swept away by
the dusk, I kept catching myself glancing up
into the mirror, as if I might find them again.
Why was the woman out there with a small child in the cold, with thin jackets, climbing up to watch the traffic? Why did he put them in a poem? I think he did it because he couldn’t forget them, and we shouldn’t either, as we do our best to keep each other warm.
I’ll end with the last poem in the book, “Waxer,” which is both about a working man with a rotary buffer and about connection. Not only does Ted Kooser know his trees, birds and critters, he also knows a great deal about machines of various kinds. However, I think the poem is also a funny commentary on love, when the buffer turns into a woman.
I once watched a man wax a hallway
with an overweight rotary buffer
that he waltzed from one side to the other
by tipping it ever so slightly, letting
the bristles on one side get a grip
on the floor, drawing the big machine
in that direction, then artfully tipping it
into the opposite, letting it lead, letting it
whirl him out over the beautiful shine
that the two of them made as they
swept down the hall, the man always
in charge but cajoling his partner
into believing that she was, stealing
the show while the man merely followed,
the two swirling out over the gloss
from the overhead lighting, gracefully
rounding a corner and gone.
So, lovers cajole and hope for grace, as do we all.
Thinking about the human kindness (as opposed to metamorphosis) in the poems of Ted Kooser, I asked my medievalist husband Robert Edwards who he thought was the most compassionate poet he studied, and right away he named Chaucer and offered a quote: “For pitee renneth some in gentil herte.” Pity moves quickly in the noble heart: this phrase and some variants turn up in at least three of his tales, and we all know what a range of human beings Chaucer poetically and sympathetically portrayed. However, guess what Chaucer’s phrase echoes: a line from Ovid’s Tristia! Perhaps transformation and compassion go together? To investigate this question further, note that Copper Canyon Press has just published a new book by Ted Kooser called Red Stilts.
 Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (Pittsburgh, 1980), Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Poems to Jim Harrison (Pittsburgh, 2000), Splitting an Order (Port Townsend, 2014), Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems (Port Townsend, 2018).