Jul/Aug 2018  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Loving Celebration of Life

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems.
Ted Kooser.
Copper Canyon Press. 2018. 256 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-533-2.

I imagine all reviewers have a code of one sort or another to markup text to revisit when it comes time to actually write the review. I know I do. With the poems of Ted Kooser, I am always distraught to think that any must be set aside. No, many weren't the pick of the litter, but there is always something in each that one is saddened to decide against in any way.

On the other hand, it is more than a little disconcerting to learn that one is so susceptible to the sentimentality that Kooser constantly skirts in his poems. "I tend to be someone who writes with a great deal of sentiment," the poet himself has admitted. He has been "willing to take that risk at a time when people are suspicious of sentimental poetry." There are so vastly many bad sentimental poems. How can this one poet so consistently write good ones?

From my perspective, I am regularly in awe to see the tightrope act of the poet of Kindest Regards walking along the edge of sentimentality but almost never quite going over. After I emerge from the experience of the poem, that is. Especially of the better poems. There is no thought while reading the poem of how it is done. Only that the reader has experienced a special, somehow uniquely poignant moment.

Sometimes the reader finds themselves in the quiet of a dawn...

watching the light walk down the hill
to the edge of the pond and place
a doe there, shyly drinking...

Sometimes she or he is looking on as the poet visits "Pearl," a longtime friend of his mother, in a poem from the volume Delights & Shadows:

I had come
a hundred miles to tell our cousin, Pearl,
that her childhood playmate, Vera, my mother,
had died.

Within half a page of utterly humble words, Pearl—at 90, and 20 years a widow—is profoundly human, profoundly beautiful to us. She has...

started seeing people who are not here.
I know they're not real but I see them the same.

In the end it is the poet we are meeting as well as Pearl:

I cleared my throat and said
I hoped she'd take care of herself, and think
about seeing a real medical doctor,
and she said she'd give some thought to that...

Again, the perfect humble, careful touch. This time both as houseguest and poet. He clears his throat, not only because he knows he may never see her again, but because she is a last vestige of a world soon to die together with Vera and with them.

But however much the moment of the poem is solidly in the present, as the rule, it portrays not the present but a past—a moment he and the reader let go of with a sense of the last of a waning world. There is the occasional poem that makes a point to describe a connection to a fascinating, immediate present, but it belongs more because it is surely the feeling these characters (the poet included) have as they fade gracefully into the past.

That world is the American Midwest. But it is something more than that. It is a Midwest without the overt presence of the Corporate farm. It is a Midwest without elevated rates of suicide or signs of opiates to dull the pain. It is a Midwest without good ole boys.

The poems so well represented by Ted Kooser's Kindest Regards are never diagnostic, never political. Instead there is all that stands at the brink as...

some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.

What was unjust haunts the poems as all that is unstated. It is much too late to save that world, anyway. These poems gently accompany it through its final days. He and it pass away rich with memories and quiet dignity. Because he has refused to descend to the least rancor, he has left us a portrait of what we cannot possibly argue wasn't a better time and place.

At the same time, there are a number of poems in most volumes that attempt to tie Kooser's landscape to more at-large styles. "November 12," from Winter Morning Walks, is an adroit surrealist poem. "Snakeskin," from Winter Central, is so much so that the reader may find themselves at a loss for how it is possible this poet wrote it. With a deftness belonging only to the very finest of craftsmen, the 12 simple lines of "Landing" impress the reader with the actual physical sense of being a passenger in a commercial airliner descending to the runway.

Two of the new poems go delightfully back to the influence of William Carlos Williams. Surely the poem "Arabesque" is Kooser's reply to Williams's "The Artist." The same can be said of the last poem in the volume "Waxer." These are not what we have come to expect from him with the exception that they are, as always, thoroughly humble. No matter the years, Ted Kooser likes trying out something entirely new now and then. When he does, we can only be struck by his stylistic chops—a surprising range given he chooses not to show it off very often.

While the poems of Ted Kooser's Kindest Regards are all I have described and much more, in the end, somehow, before everything else, they are a loving celebration of life.


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