Jan/Feb 2015 Reviews & Interviews

Life has gone on.

Splitting an Order
Ted Kooser.
Copper Canyon Press. 2014. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-469-4.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! It is quite possible that Ted Kooser is still getting better at his craft with each new volume of poetry. Surely, in Splitting an Order, the common-everyday-things aesthetic is handled as well as it is possible to do. Every thing, person, incident (but one) is strikingly humble. Their sole claim on our attention lies in how much we love lingering over them, perhaps only now realizing how much they played roles in our lives.

In these pages, there is an additional, and deeply affecting, tendency in the poet to see the past in the present, to hold in his hands the small and crumbling vestiges of lives that have passed or are about to pass. The longest poem in the volume catalogues the items in an "Estate Sale." There we find...

The parts of a broken birdfeeder put into a box for fixing later...


A windup wrist watch with a cracked leather band...

and much more, all part of lives that were so vital, all as anachronistic as a modest demeanor.

In poems such as "Snapshot," the aged, yellowed quality of the subjects, their exotic detail of another time, are brought home to us with single metaphors so quiet the reader is ambushed by the realization that there is a connection, that this is our own fate.

One man grins and points at the camera,
his finger bright as a spark, reaching out,
touching the shimmering film of the future.

We, too, are only here for a brief and irreplaceable time. Lingering over this tiny flaw in a photograph, suddenly the magic of the moment reveals itself to the poet. There is no prose equivalent for what this says.

From another angle, this Ted Kooser rediscovers this mysterious connection with the past while driving past...

...young farmers

who have already this morning
put on the faces of ancestors
and have shoved the cold red fists
of grandfathers, fathers, and uncles

deep in their pockets, stand framed
in wreaths of diesel smoke...

The world into which Kooser was born—the world which he has so come to love, to the benefit of us all—still persists, these poems seem to say. But they are few. More to the point is the estate sale, the yellowing photo, "the empty parking lot / of the abandoned Kmart." More likely to remain is the "chatter / of leaves blown over the shingles" of the farmhouses that will persist beneath vast prairie skies. Maybe inhabitants will also persist who have the silence to hear it.

Splitting an Order ends with the genre that we now call "creative non-fiction." A house Ted Kooser and his first wife once lived in early in their marriage has been the scene of a brutal murder. The fearful aspect of the new world has savagely disfigured even his memories. His happy memories of the place and the people with whom he once shared it have been profoundly violated.

The brief piece says more, perhaps, about his times and ours than even he realizes. In our world today the murder merits just a 30 second news segment running for a few cycles. By the time Kooser has pondered his loss, has written the piece, the apartment has long been rented again. Life has gone on.

Previous Piece Next Piece