The power of a gentle rain

To see complexities in a girl skating, a world in a jar of buttons

Those who have read the work of Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the United States, know he is a poet of the everyday, a keen observer of small moments. The poems in his latest book, Pulitzer Prize-winning "Delights & Shadows," are understated, more plain than pretty.

Where some poetry makes a dramatic entrance, tossing sound and imagery across the page, Kooser's words fall softly. Without hard landings or edgy language, this collection feels more like a gentle rain than a tornado.

Kooser always begins with something simple - a girl ice skating, a woman walking down a hospital corridor, a man fishing in an aluminum boat - and then he reveals the hidden complexities that other poets might miss.

Even buttons can have great meaning, as in the poem "A Jar of Buttons":

This is a core sample
from the floor of the Sea of Mending,
a cylinder packed with shells
that over many years
sank through fathoms of shirts -
pearl buttons, blue buttons -
and settled together
beneath waves of perseverance,
an ocean upon which
generations of women set forth,
under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side
on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.

A sense of wonder and compassion runs throughout "Delights & Shadows," as does the realization that nothing in this world can last. The skater will one day stop spinning. The buttons may be lost or forgotten.

This underlying tension is part of what makes the poems strong. Yes, rain can bring forth new growth, but it also washes some things away.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about this book, Kooser's tenth, is the consistency of tone and quality. Page after page illumines small moments. Grace often "fills the clean mold of this moment."

But will this book be remembered years from now?

Some would quickly answer no, saying that "Sure Signs," published in 1980, was Kooser's best work. Others would argue that only tornadoes make an impact, because their effects last much longer.

"Delights & Shadows" does stir things up, though, in a gentle way. It swirls together memories of people and places, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Perhaps that is enough.

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