Delights and Shadows
by Ted Kooser
Published by Copper Canyon Press
96 pages, 2004
More than Meets the Eye
Reviewed by Gianmarc Manzione
So much is made of Ted Kooser's talent for exposing the extraordinary within the mundane that it is a wonder he hasn't become poetry's equivalent to a typecast Molly Ringwald, fleeing to Paris for a new identity. We hear from Poetry magazine that Kooser "documents ... daily life." His latest book's back cover says that he "reveals the remarkable within an otherwise ordinary world" while his friend Jim Harrison remarks on Kooser's "genius" for -- surprise! -- "making the ordinary sacramental."
Such constant praising of this narrow aspect of this poet's wider achievement turns it into a kind of shtick, like Philip Levine's factory smoke. It is characteristically American to exploit any decently popular cultural marvel into something so familiar that its most visible representatives grace every cereal box and billboard from Seattle to Key West. I am not betting that Kooser will be the next spokesman for Wheaties -- the days of Robinson Jeffers appearing on the cover of Time magazine are long behind us -- but I am daring to suggest that there is more to Kooser's work than sacramental mason jars.
Sure, Kooser doesn't exactly help things with titles such as "Cosmetics Department," "A Jar of Buttons" and the exhilarating "A Spiral Notebook" (I wonder what that one's about?) but perhaps he is content with his given status as Hero of the Daily World. That's fine; who wouldn't be? In Delights and Shadows, however, I see more. I see that what he does is less significant than how he does it; that amid such elusive simplicity as these poems command are more complicated emotions, the secret stories of well-lived lives, and a poet behind the scenes who understands exactly what buttons to push to let the reader into them.
Kooser's poems reveal a mastery of gesture and detail that rivals the flawlessness of James Wright's "A Blessing." Simple gestures in poems such as "At the Cancer Clinic" or the gorgeous "Gyroscope" raise the work to a level of sensuousness that is nothing short of hypnotizing. The plainest verbs capture the most vivid and lively scenes. In "At the Cancer Clinic," two women help their sister through the clinic doors, and "Each bends to the weight of an arm / and steps with the straight, tough bearing / of courage." In "Gyroscope," we hear rumors of "the world beyond / the windows slowly tipping forward / into spring."
Even more captivating is Kooser's patient, exact description; how he pauses at every detail to ensure that it is brought to such life as to exist at the edge of the reader's fingertips, as in the description of a painting in "At the County Museum":
Blacker than black, the lacquered horse-drawn hearse,
Delights and Shadows includes many of these museum visits, reports of paintings that are as vibrant as Mary Cassatt's box of pastels, so vivid and precise as to step inside the paintings themselves.
Kooser's knack for poems on painting comes full circle in a delicate series of poems called "Four Civil War Paintings by Winslow Homer," poems that occasionally indulge in the irresistible temptation to write poems about writing poems. "Some part of art is the art / of waiting," the speaker reflects in "Sharpshooter," "the chord / behind the tight fence / of a musical staff, / the sonnet shut in a book." The best in the series, "The Veteran in a New Field," underscores what power Kooser commands when he allows verbs to speak for themselves:
His back is turned to us, his white shirt
For the most part, the poems in Delights and Shadows are short, tightly wrapped things, as though gushing towards a final reflection from the poem's very first word. Such weight is placed on these concluding observations in which Kooser wraps so many poems that they occasionally buckle under the pressure and risk mawkishness. That a student crawling "out of the froth / of a hangover and onto the sand of the future" is "heavy with hope" seems less certain than the "length of common grocery twine / upon which smoothly spins and leans / one of the smaller worlds we each / at one time learn to master, the last / to balance so lightly in our hands."
An element of believability is lost in these otherwise persuasive poems when Kooser fuses his final lines with so much of the poem's burden. Like most omniscient narrators, the one reporting on the lives of the people and places in these poems imposes on the subject at times: suggestions that an older man whose flabby arm exposes the faded tattoo of former lives has "a heart gone soft and blue with stories," for instance, or "all the shuffling magazines" that "grow still" because the speaker commands "Grace" to fill "the clean mold of this moment" at the cancer clinic.
Yet this understated style manages to overpower any tendency toward the melodramatic or his adoration of such poeticized words as "shadow" and "dust." Though Kooser overreaches for affect at times, at least he waits until the final few lines that conclude a sustained series of perfectly chosen verbs from his spare lexicon of awe, a vocabulary restrained enough to allow readers the necessary participation. Like Denise Levertov or Nazim Hikmet, there is often a playful sense of wonder at the human experience that sets these poems apart from the more self-conscious work produced by many of his contemporaries.
Even more significant than Kooser's overexposed talent for rending the miraculous from the mundane is this success at considering something larger than the self or its immediate experiences. Plenty of poets have managed to make poetry out of ordinary things. While Kooser may be one of the best, what really sets him apart is this ability to look outward with an eye perceptive enough to see where the stories are, like some extraterrestrial assigned to report on earthly life to the inhabitants of another planet. | March 2005
Gianmarc Manzione is a poet and music writer. He is currently working on his first book of poems, Clutter of Bones.