Delights and Shadows: Poems by Ted Kooser 2004

I found this slim volume of poems on the shelf of a Vermont neighbor, a retired MIT professor who had died a year earlier and whose wife invited me to browse his shelves and take one or more of his books for my own library.  With this gift of time and poetry, I chose three books by favorite poets, among them this volume by Kooser.

Ted Kooser is the quintessential poet of a rural Midwest that has largely disappeared.  His poems are replete with vivid images of farmlife in mid-20th C Nebraska and Iowa.  As I read these beautiful poems, I did my usual note taking of phrases, sentences, and whole poems which I wanted to note in this review, but quickly realized that I would be reproducing the entire work.  Each poem is a fine jewel, a complete universe, a vivid reflection of a world gone by.  Nature, especially birds, lilacs, and weather, is omnipresent, but front and center are the people whose lost world Kooser memorializes.  His mother (“gone a month today…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.”), his father (“But with your dignity intact/you have been gone for twenty years,/and I am glad for all of us, although/I miss you every day—the heartbeat/under your necktie, the hand cupped/on the back of my neck, Old Spice/in the air, your voice delighted with stories.”), and in a wonderful poem entitled ‘Memory’ in which his pen is transformed into a tornado (“Spinning up dust and cornstalks/as it crossed the chalky, exhausted fields,/it sucked up into its heart/ hot work, cold work, lunch buckets…..” ) and on and on the tornado/pen spins for more than thirty lines listing the contents of the farm and the people who worked it for a life and a living (“uncles and cousins, grandma, grandpa,/parents and children one by one,/held them like dolls, looked/long and longingly into their faces,/then set them back in their chairs ….”).  It’s all that a poem can be.

This collection, like all of Kooser’s poems that I have read,is quite simply wonderful.  Simple and accessible language and images, yet deeply felt and expressed conveying a love of a way of life and a place that are  longer there.  Perhaps his greatest gift, however, is to share with us the inevitable sadness and beauty of old age as in this poem entitled ‘The Old People’:

Pantcuffs rolled, and in old shoes, /they stumble over the rocks and wade out/into a cold river of shadows/far from the fire, so far that its warmth/no longer reaches them.  And its light/(but for the sparks in their eyes/when they chance to look back)/scarcely brushes their faces. Their ears/are full of night: rustle of black leaves/against a starless sky. Sometimes/they hear us calling, and sometimes/they don’t. They are not searching/for anything much, nor are they much/in need of finding something new./They are feeling ther way out into the night,/letting their eyes adjust to the future.”

Read Kooser for comfort, for beauty, for memory.