A Winter Morning
A farmhouse window far back from the highway
speaks to the darkness in a small, sure voice.
Against this stillness, only a kettle's whisper,
and against the starry cold, one small blue ring of flame.
The appointment of Ted Kooser as the nation's new poet laureate puts me in mind of other poets from Nebraska who have meant a good deal to me: Willa Cather (1873-1947), John Neihardt (1881-1973), Weldon Kees (1914-1955) and Loren Eiseley (1907-1977).
Something about the Great Plains seems to foster a plain, homemade style, a sturdy forthrightness with hidden depths, a hard-won clarity chastened by experience. It is an unadorned, pragmatic, quintessentially American poetry of empty places, of farmland and low-slung cities. The open spaces stimulate and challenge people. One's mettle is tested. Cather said that coming to Nebraska was like being "thrown onto a land as bare as a piece of sheet iron."
The poets from Nebraska tend to have a reticent manner and a determinedly accessible style, a sensitivity to the natural world that at times reminds me of the Chinese poets. This is a modest, stubborn kind of poetry that owes a great debt to the native American sensibility. Seasons rotate and weather matters. Natural disasters are real. The visible world informs the verbal one. Yet there are also spiritual presences. The seemingly ordinary world turns out to be extraordinary. If you can learn to read the signs, every landscape has a genuine story to tell. Here is Eiseley's poem "Prairie Spring," which shows something of his gift as a literary naturalist:
Killdeer screaming over the flowing acres
of bronze grass now the buffalo are gone
make a wide eery silence. In the midst of crying
April has come but meadow flowers alone
spring up to greet her. No more the hooves will thunder
of bison moving northward in the spring.
No more the violet by wet black muzzles
will be cropped under -- a long silence follows
after the flashing and exultant wing.
There is a sense of quiet amazement at the core of all Kooser's work, but it especially seems to animate his new collection of poems, a book of portraits and landscapes, Delights & Shadows. Every delight is shadowed by darkness in this book of small wonders and hard dualisms. The book begins with a poem called "Walking on Tiptoe" and ends with one entitled "A Happy Birthday." It takes an epigraph from Emily Dickinson -- "The Sailor cannot see the North, but knows the Needle can" -- but just as easily could have taken one from Wallace Stevens: "Death is the mother of beauty." Mortality is omnipresent and induces a deep attentiveness. Everyone here -- a young woman in a wheelchair, a skater dressed in black, a group of mourners after a funeral, the poet himself -- seems to be moving lightly over an invisible abyss. "There are days when the fear of death/ is as ubiquitous as light. It illuminates/ everything," he writes in "Surviving." "Were it not for the way you taught me to look/ at the world, to see the life at play in everything," he writes to his mother who has been dead just one month, "I would have to be lonely forever."
A Happy Birthday This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
(All quotations from Ted Kooser appear in his book "Delights & Shadows." Copper Canyon. Copyright © 2004 by Ted Kooser. "Prairie Spring" appears in Loren Eiseley, "The Innocent Assassins." Scribner's. Copyright © 1973 by Loren Eiseley.)