'Splitting an Order' offers poetry that outshines dark days

Wisdom, compassion, and dignity continue to mark the poems of Ted Kooser.

Splitting an Order By Ted Kooser Copper Canyon Press 84 pp.

As December draws to a close, many people think about endings, the future, and celebrating light during the darkest days of the year. If that includes you, consider greeting 2015 with a copy of Ted Kooser’s Splitting an Order, a quiet collection that honors small victories and gives reasons to be hopeful.

The book – Kooser’s 13th full-length collection of poems – introduces all of those elements in the first pages before exploring them at length in the next three sections. 

Kooser fans will recognize his trademark compassion and plain-spoken wisdom in the initial poems, which form a series of gray- and white-haired portraits. Here, an elderly father and son walk down stairs together, their fingers interlaced in affection and strength. A long-married couple shares a simple meal, along with practiced patience. A woman celebrating her 110th birthday glides to the celebration “in a chair with sparkling carriage wheels,” riding “inches above/ the world’s hard surface, up where she belongs,/ safe from the news.”

Those stories, tinged with melancholy, show the dignity and perseverance of their subjects. Every poem contains several lines that uplift both the anecdote and the reader. Kooser also intersperses more youthful scenes – a little girl swinging between her parents, a young woman swooshing by on inline skates – creating a rich canvas where experience and innocence are equally moving.

From there, Kooser shifts his attention from people to things and animals. The second section explores time and the past, beginning with a long poem called “Estate Sale.” As the speaker moves from one item to another, he ponders ideas and tools that have been discarded through passing decades. A broken bird feeder, a baseball split at the seams, a wristwatch with “a cracked leather band” have all lost their former glory. Yet Kooser’s careful, compassionate view gives them and other forgotten items a different kind of worth and dignity. Wing imagery and ocean references help transform the scene, little by little, until readers and the poem arrive at an antique gilded harp, “its dusty strings like a curtain/ drawn over the silence,/ stroked by fingers of light.”

The third section starts gloriously, as if Kooser’s willingness to see beyond the surface in previous parts has led to new beginnings.

The poem “At a Kitchen Table,” one of the best in the book, opens like a new year with stories that “arrive at dusk,/ in pairs, quietly/ creating themselves/ in the feathery light.” These tales arrive not with fancy plumage but “with a plain little song./ Theirs are the open wings/ we light our table by.”

Readers will feel that light in the next poem as well, as Kooser describes the natural world coming to life in early spring and realizes more than once that there will be “No other day/ like this one, not ever again.” That bittersweet recognition leads to the poem’s powerful last sentence: “This is my life,/ none other like this.” The speaker then shifts direction again, recalling childhood memories of his father, the way people create the past in their own minds, and his unsuccessful first marriage.

Some readers might wish for more light at this point, or wonder why the poet has reverted to sad memories. The book’s final pages answer that question and make a point everyone should remember as 2014 draws to a close: Feeling hopeful is easy when there are no big losses or shocks to challenge one’s perspective. But when major cracks weaken a person’s foundation, he or she must decide what kind of outlook will guide moving forward.

Much of the fourth section is a prose piece, recounting the horror and grief Kooser felt after learning that a teenage boy had been murdered in the house where he, his first wife, and their baby used to live. That violent act seemed to taint key memories and destroy part of the past.

As the speaker describes the cellar he used as a study, the orange shag carpet, and the couple’s “most ordinary unhappiness,” he mentally inhabits those familiar rooms again and restores, in some measure, the place he knew.

Yet Kooser, always full of surprises, doesn’t end with that. Instead, he closes “Splitting an Order” with a short poem in which he compares his right hand to a chicken that pecks her way across the paper and pulls him along “across more than seventy years, a sometimes/ muddy, sometimes frozen barnyard/ where, looking back, it seems that every day/ was rich with interest, both underfoot/ and just an inch or two ahead of that.”

That’s a perspective worth carrying into the new year.
Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for the Monitor and The Washington Post.

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