Magazine | July 30, 2018, Issue

Poet of Plain Things

Ted Kooser (Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)
Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems, by Ted Kooser (Copper Canyon, 256 pp., $30)

Ted Kooser has said, “It’s very hard for me to imagine a God who has taken a personal interest in what one old man in rural Nebraska is doing or thinking, but it’s fun to imagine him being that kind of a spirit, walking among us, amused by our foibles, shaking his head at our stupidity.” Kooser’s poetry has done something similar: offered glimpses of our ordinary oddities, but with a caring sense. Uninterested in cynicism, Kooser has been sentimental without becoming saccharine. He is one of our best poets, and not simply because his style widens the reach of the art form.

Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems spans his impressive career, which began with Official Entry Blank in 1969 — published by the University of Nebraska Press at Lincoln, where Kooser now occasionally teaches. Although born in Ames, Iowa, Kooser has been most identified as a Nebraska poet, and he has embraced that identity. He saw his two terms as U.S. poet laureate as an opportunity to represent the Great Plains.

He has always been a populist, but his art has never been superficial. Before his tenure as a public spokesperson for poetry, Kooser worked for 35 years in insurance. During his time at Lincoln Benefit Life, he rose to become vice president and would show his poem drafts to his secretary. If they stumped her, he would change them.

Kooser’s poems do feel worked and well earned. Pithy pieces such as “Old Soldiers’ Home” are gentle but firm: “On benches in front of the Old Soldiers’ Home, / the old soldiers unwrap the / pale brown packages / of their hands, folding the fingers back / and looking inside, then closing / them up again / and gazing off across the grounds, / safe with the secret.”

Those short poems trail off, gesturing toward an untold story, as in “Snow Fence”: “The red fence / takes the cold trail / north; no meat / on its ribs, / but neither has it / much to carry.” But these glances to mystery are not only in his short poems. In “After the Funeral: Cleaning Out the Medicine Cabinet,” the narrator observes “a dusty little chronicle / of small complaints and private sorrows.” There are tins of laxatives and aspirin, forgotten corn pads and razor blades. Finally, the narrator dumps pills “with faded, lonely codes” down the toilet. (A Kooser elegy is often distant, unsurprised by the shortness of life.)

What remains unspoken behind Kooser’s lines creates drama. The mystery of “Abandoned Farmhouse” is downright arresting. In this fractured home, a “Bible with a broken back” rests, “dusty with sun.” A large man once lived here, but he was “not a man for farming, say the fields / cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.” He had a wife and child, and they struggled: “Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves / and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.” They survived harsh winters, rags stuffed into window frames, but “something went wrong.” Cellar jars, sealed and filled, suggest a quick exit — and so do the child’s toys “strewn in the yard / like branches after a storm.”

Kooser doesn’t explain the mystery. Why should he? There’s poetic restraint in offering us a well-drawn map without a required route. That requires patience, a little confidence, and a belief that poems can be about living rather than an explanation of life.

His eye toward accumulation of detail is fine, as in “The Red Wing Church,” which starts with an eyeful: “There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church / in Red Wing, Nebraska, in a coat of mud / and straw that drags the floor. A broken plow / sprawls beggar-like behind it on some planks / that make a sort of roadway up the steps.”

Kooser’s clean syntax allows his packed settings to be clearly imagined. It also helps that he doesn’t interrupt mid-description to offer commentary, other than that of plainspoken town gossip.

The new owner has taken down the church steeple to make the church a barn, but shadows of the divine are scattered elsewhere: “Pews stretch on porches up and down the street, / the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house, / and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square. / The cross is only God knows where.”

Even in change, Kooser manages to find permanence and tradition. In another poem, a fan set in a window has its blades turned by the breeze that sneaks inside. “Dust has begun to collect on the blades, / haymaker’s dust from distant fields, / dust riding to town on the night-black wings / of the crows.” There’s a pleasing sense of recognition in reading Kooser. He’s not the only notable contemporary poet of the Great Plains, but how nice to see lives often forgotten by poetry reach the widest of audiences, as in “The Basement of the Goodwill Store,” in which an old man tries on glasses, “lifting each pair / from the box like a glittering fish / and holding it up to the light / of a dirty bulb.” Kooser finds poetry in everything: “Near him, a heap / of enameled pans as white as skulls / looms in the catacomb shadows, / and old toilets with dry red throats / cough up bouquets of curtain rods.”

What he finds poetry in most often, though, is people. The narrator sees himself in that old man: “When you have grown old and thin / and no longer particular, / and the things you once thought / you were rid of forever / have taken you back in their arms.” Soft lines, and natural for Kooser, who I think is most fully a poet of love and loss. “I scratched your name in longhand / on the night, then you wrote mine,” he notes in “Sparklers.” His name “swirled out of your hand / as you rushed hard to write it / all the way out to its end / before its beginning was gone. / It left a frail red line / trembling along on the darkness.”

Often Kooser’s poems arrive with that gentle melancholy of early morning or evening. There is the precise, pared emotion in “Mourners,” his wrenching elegy for his mother: “Were it not for the way you taught me to look / at the world, to see the life at play in everything, / I would have to be lonely forever.” And there is the sad truth of “Bad News”: It “arrives while you sleep,” in a phone call that ruptures your rest, “simple old words you lean into / as into a breath from a cave.” Afterward, “you move on cold feet room to room, / feeling as weightless as a soul,” on “a day you’ll learn to call that day, / the first morning after it happened.”

For much of his life, Kooser was vaguely Methodist. There’s nothing conventional — or, to use his word, “churchly” — about his manner of devotion. Yet in recent years he’s been drawn to Episcopalian faith, and he jokes about how his friends question its theology. His response is a perfect summary of what makes his poetry so powerful: “The tenor of my religious experience is my sense that there is something there, beyond us and around us and within us.”

Nick Ripatrazone is a contributing editor of The Millions and has written for The Atlantic.

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