Arts/Literature

Ted Kooser's poetry sees "delights and shadows"

With cover adornments like “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry” and “Poet Laureate of the United States,” Ted Kooser’s Delights & Shadows (2004) lured me in like a will-o-wisp. Hell, there was even a single white streetlight—maybe a faerie light—in the painting used as cover art. I’m a sucker for that stuff.

But the book’s first poem, “Walking on Tiptoe,” offers a promise of seeing in the dark. In fact, through the whole book, Kooser seems very much concerned with what we see and how.

In fact, he’s so focused on ways of seeing that he epigraphs his book with a line from Emily Dickinson: “The Sailor cannot see the North, but knows the Needle can.” Like the sailor’s compass, then, Kooser’s poems see what others cannot and point the way.

Attitude plays a huge rule in what you see, too. Kooser writes:

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.

The lines come in a poem titled “Mother.” The narrator’s mother has been gone a month—“three rains and one nightlong/watch for tornadoes”—and while the poem strikes an elegiac tone, the narrator speaks with profound gratitude, too. There’s always something fresh and new to see, and fresh, new ways to see them.

Consider the student he compares to a sea turtle

as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.

Or the “heart tattoo, a dripping dagger through a fist-like heart” that has faded and sagged with age on a man’s arm—“his heart gone soft and blue with stories.”

A booklover reads in the growing dark of evening, refusing to turn on a lamp because he “wanted to ride this day down into night.” A ladybird beetle freezes under a man’s stare in its march across a windowsill; the fear of death “as ubiquitous as light…illuminates everything.” A moth drinks the tears from a sleeper’s eye, who awakens to rub the dust of its wings from his eyes.

Even the instruments of seeing must be seen in a new way, such as the telescope:

This is the pipe that pierces the dam
that holds back the universe,

that takes off some of the pressure,
keeping the weight of the unknown

from breaking through
and washing us down the valley.

Because of the telescope, he writes, “we are able to sleep, at least for now, beneath the straining wall of darkness.”

There’s not much of Kooser himself in these poems, although the first-person “I” appears in many of them and some are based on events from Kooser’s own life. Of the many things he wants his readers to see, his own inner vulnerability is not among them, although he does tap into hopes and fears common to most of us.

Instead, he’s content to show, with a master storyteller’s rich voice, the familiar world around us. His poems are comfortable country quilts and calm prairie grasses.

“Grace fills the clean mold of this moment,” he writes.

It fills his poems, too.

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