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    Poet as Neighbor

    A Review of Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser

    By James Crews

    October 17, 2018
    • Laura

      Thank you for this gift of a new poet for us. My husband and I read a poem every day at breakfast. It helps us awaken to the day and to read the daily lectionary Scripture with more depth and openness. A great reviewer!

    A friend once told me that she reads a few Ted Kooser poems each morning as part of her devotional practice. His careful poems, she said, help to direct her heart and mind in those small hours toward a more caring and attentive relationship with the world.

    Reading Kooser’s work, I often think of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman’s words: “Worship that does not lead to neighborly compassion cannot be faithful worship.” This same sense of “neighborliness” has been apparent in the poetry of Kooser ever since he began publishing over fifty years ago. Since then he has produced more than a dozen collections of poetry and even several children’s picture books, and has served two terms as US Poet Laureate. His communion with seemingly everyone he encounters, however, has never been more obvious than in his latest collection, Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems, which gathers samples from his previous books, and offers a swath of new poems.

    Like the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Kooser’s work seeks to “exalt everyday miracles and the living past” (as Heaney’s Nobel citation pointed out), but Kooser does so using language so simple that anyone might understand and appreciate his poems. Yet for all the plainness, Kooser’s poems ultimately show us a new way of absorbing the seemingly ordinary world, especially in his use of extended metaphor. In “A Washing of Hands,” for instance, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Delights & Shadows (2004), the simple act of turning on the faucet takes on a magical quality:

    She turned on the tap and a silver braid
    unraveled over her fingers.
    She cupped them, weighing that tassel,
    first in one hand and then the other,
    then pinched through the threads
    as if searching for something …

    As my friend long ago pointed out to me, these poems train us to notice what we might be tempted to ignore. And even the briefest moments that Kooser preserves can lead us more deeply into our own lives. The short poem, “Hoarfrost,” which describes a simple walk through “icy prairie fog,” conveys the intention of his work. Most of us have heard ice compared to lace, but few have followed the image with such dexterity and clarity:

    every blade of grass, and twig,
    and branch, and every stretch of wire, barb, post and staple is a knot
    or a thread in a lace of the purest white.

    it is like finding your way
    through a wedding dress, the sky
    inside it cold and satiny …

    His connection to the scene before him brings this speaker into the present moment, taking his reader with him:

    no past, no future, just the now
    all breathless. Then a red bird
    like a pinprick changes everything.

    Because he had already been paying such close attention, he is present for that next, dramatic shift in perception – the lone “pinprick” of color that like awareness itself disrupts what might otherwise have been an unremarkable winter scene. Kooser’s poems often evoke for me Henry David Thoreau’s now-famous line: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” This book proves that Kooser is awake, body and soul, to exactly what’s happening around him.

    Even the briefest moments can lead us more deeply into our own lives.

    Kooser’s critics dismiss him for his conversational style and accessible subject matter. Yet few speculate as to why such an accomplished poet might choose this way of addressing us. Given the book’s title, Kindest Regards – a nod to a now outmoded way of signing letters – it is difficult not to see Kooser’s poems as a kind of intimate correspondence with his readers.

    A correspondence can be a literal exchange of letters, or a description of how things seem similar and fit together. But the roots of the word – cor, meaning together; re-, meaning in return; and spondere, meaning to promise – also combine to form the phrase, “returning the promise together.” The promise that these poems make, as long as we are willing to participate in the exchange, is a clear communication that allows us to see the everyday world in striking new ways. Kooser speaks to us as if we were neighbors gathered in the grocery store parking lot or around a barbecue pit in someone’s backyard – as if we’ve known each other for years.

    One of his most anthologized poems, “Splitting an Order,” begins as if we were already in the middle of a conversation with him: “I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half …,” he writes. Yet the scene he describes – of an elderly couple splitting “an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread” – brings both the poet and that couple closer to us as well. One of his new poems, “Passing Through,” recounts his sighting of a man standing outside on a break from work:

    He was beside me for only an instant,
    wearing a short-sleeve yellow shirt
    and gray work pants, as the hand
    that held the cigarette swept out
    and away, and he turned to watch it
    as with the tip of a finger he tapped
    once at the ash, which began to drift
    into that moment already behind us,
    as I, with the others, sped on.

    The late Fred Rogers, another man who knew the necessity of neighborliness, once reminded his viewers: “If you could only sense how important you are to those you meet; how important you can be to the people you never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” The painstaking detail of Kooser’s description suggests there is something essential about this man, and about the brief encounter between him and the poet. Perhaps, like Rogers, Kooser means to help us see that we do leave a mark on every person we meet, whether we intend to or not.

    Kooser’s poems are an intimate correspondence with his readers. 

    He illustrates this again and again in his new poems. He shows us a man singing “in a doctor’s crowded waiting room”; a man standing alone on a bridge, “hands clamped to the cold iron rail”; “a tiny ballerina of a man” perched on the back of a garbage truck; and “a woman and a small child … sitting in wind on the slope, / looking down at the traffic.” Even a name written in faded ink on the back of an old snapshot becomes an occasion for the poet to imagine himself into the life of that young man apparently named Richard, “pinching the brim of his hat, / smiling into the lens.” Kooser thus shows us how to live with a closer affinity to the people around us, even those who do not seem at first so consequential.

    Some might question the necessity of holding onto such “passing moments,” especially at a time when the world seems more and more in crisis. Why write about that man smoking outside the warehouse, or that mother and child bundled up on the slope, looking out at the cars below? Kooser’s answer, of course, rests in the inherent intimacy of poem after poem, which turn ordinary acts and words into sacraments for his reader, using nothing more than the authentic power of his own honed attention and instinctive empathy. “At Nightfall” argues that each of us must hold on to those brief streaks of connection for as long as we can. The poem begins:

    In feathers the color of dusk, a swallow,
    up under the shadowy eaves of the barn,
    weaves now, with skillful beak and chitter,
    one bright white feather into her nest
    to guide her flight home in the darkness.

    We too need the “bright white feathers” to “guide” us back home, away from distractions. Our culture often urges us to ignore such everyday miracles as a swallow, yet Kooser ends by asking us to seriously consider the real consequences of our disregard:

    … But to what
    safe place shall any of us return
    in the last smoky nightfall,
    when we in our madness have put the torch
    to the hope in every nest and feather?

    A shift in perception is always possible (I think again of that “red bird / like a pinprick”), but it must start in our hearts and minds. We cannot be kind to those we won’t acknowledge. Being attentive is an act both of generosity and of devotion. As Kooser has been trying to show us, that kind of attention changes everything.

    Contributed By JamesCrews

    James Crews’ work has appeared in multiple publications, including Ploughshares, Christian Century, and The New Republic, and he is a regular contributor to The London Times Literary Supplement. His is the author of two collections of poetry, and lives on an organic farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont.

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