Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems, Ted Kooser 2018
Kooser is a rock solid Midwesterner, having grown up in Iowa and having lived in Nebraska for years, and writes as one would expect a Midwesterner to do so. None of Eliot’s Wasteland esoteric references and symbols; none of Bishop’s, Lowell’s, or Sexton’s confessional details of his personal life; none of cummings or O’Hara’s symbolism—just straightforward language, similes, and metaphors for the beauty of the everyday. The cover painting of a street corner lit by a streetlight with its telephone pole, mailbox, and stop sign is a pretty good predictor of the contents, ‘what you see is what you’re going to get’. I have to admit that I like his earlier poems better than the new ones. I just don’t think you can improve much on his poem, ‘Mother’ where he writes “….I thank you for that./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 parents and grandparents are a major presence in these works, as is the process of aging. In ‘At the Cancer Clinic’ he writes: “There is no restlessness or impatience/or anger anywhere in sight. Grace/fills the clean mold of this moment/and all the shuffling magazines grow still.” I love his postcard poems to Jim Harrison, sadly gone now, but my favorite poem of all is from his eponymous volume of 2014, ‘Splitting an Order’: “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 smooths the starched white napkin over her knees/and meets his eyes and holds out both hands to him.” If you can read that without a tear in your eye for your own future, then poetry is not for you! Kooser, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate is worth reading for comfort, for a smile, and for the love of language and imagery. This book is a fine place to start to get to know him.