I’ve long loved Ted Kooser’s poetry, but I think I somehow missed reading a full collection. So I’ve remedied that and read Sure Signs. It is a beautiful collection, equal parts whimsical and sad, embracing life while looking at death and aging. His poems are short, little moments and observations. I read it while eating dinner at a diner, and so didn’t take the time to transcribe favorite poems like I usually do, both because I didn’t want to get ketchup on the book, and because I didn’t want to pause on the reading. Instead I dog eared pages, to remind myself to go back to transcribe my favorites. By the end of the book, I’d dogeared over twenty of the ninety+ poems. I don’t even know how to pick one or two to mention here. There are ones like “Late February,” which I have loved for years, having first read heard it on the Writer’s Almanac, maybe, or in a textbook for one of my Freshman literature classes. It is a poem about the first thaw of winter, with lovely, precise images of how all the forgotten things of autumn turn up, like “autumn’s fallen/bicycles, small carnivals/of paint and chrome.” The poem is full of these unexpected images and metaphors, as in when he compares: “children,/stiffened by winter/and dressed, somehow,/like old men, mutter/and bend to the work/of building dams.” (18) In this he shows at once both the strain of winter, and the whimsy and seriousness of children’s play. And so we are both prepared, and not prepared for the final turn of the poem, in with:
the body of a farmer
missing since fall
will show up
in his garden tomorrow,
as a tulip.
He has so many beautiful testaments to rural life. Not overly romanticized, but rather true portraits, of abandoned farmhouses, the starkness of fields in winter, the folk remedies passed on for generations, lonely highways, the letters people write one another. There are so, so many I want to put here, but I will put one that is rather unlike the others, that I love because it so exactly describes my experience, but in a way I had never imagined:
Somebody deep in my bones
is lacing his shoes with a hook.
It’s an hour before dawn
in that nursing home.
There is nothing to do but get dressed
and sit in the darkness.
Up the hall, in the brightly lit skull,
the young pastor is writing his poem.
So that is Ted Kooser for you. I highly recommend this book, especially for those of you who love the midwest, rural life, or maybe think you don’t like, or get, poetry. You’ll get this. You’ll like this. Ted Kooser worked his whole life in an Insurance company, working his way up to a Vice President, and the day to day workingmanness of that shines through in his work. The discipline of getting up to write at five in the morning before going in to work and support his family. The valuing of both the practical and the artistic. I think that maybe it is that straddling of worlds, or rather the bringing together of worlds, is part of what makes Kooser’s poetry so great. And I, for one, am glad he kept on writing.