Ted Kooser grew up in Iowa and now lives in rural Nebraska. For five decades, he’s written poetry in a part of the world often rudely dismissed as flyover country – that middle place jetsetters zoom past on their way to iconic cities on either coast. It’s a region regarded widely as a land where not much happens, presumably poor soil for poetry to grow.
Kooser’s poems, the best of which have been gathered in his new retrospective, Kindest Regards, answer that cultural condescension by being mildly subversive, unveiling literary vignettes where, at first glance, it does seem that not much of anything is going on. Yet not far beneath the surface of the narrative, something profound inevitably glows.
Typical of Kooser’s genius is the title poem of his 2014 collection, “Splitting an Order,” which appears again in this new omnibus. Here we witness an elderly couple sharing a restaurant sandwich, the husband carefully halving the meal and first extending a portion to his wife “while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon, / her knife, and her fork in their proper places, / then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees / and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.”
It’s a beautiful scene, as habit stitches two aging hearts into one. Routine, which orders the lives of Kooser and his country neighbors, has a monastic intensity in his poems, as the repetition of domestic ritual is embraced, not merely endured.
In Kooser’s universe, when the unassuming patterns of daily life are disrupted, as in “Death of a Dog,” the break can seem like a form of spiritual dislocation. In Kooser’s dog poem, the passing of a pet leaves the poet’s home feeling oddly disembodied:
our dog had held down what we had
by pressing his belly to the floors,
his front paws, too, and with him gone
the house had begun to float out onto
emptiness, no solid ground in sight.
Not surprisingly given the Midwestern setting of Kooser’s poems, cold weather is a frequent character. “Kindest Regards” includes substantial excerpts from “Blizzard Voices,” a 1986 collection that commemorated the region’s Great Blizzard of 1888. The second poem of the new collection is simply called “First Snow”:
The old black dog comes in one evening
with the first few snowflakes on his back
and falls asleep, throwing his bad leg out
at our excitement. This is the night
when one of us gets to say, as if it were news,
that no two snowflakes are ever alike . . .
Kooser answers the extremity of the elements, which is really the only sharp note in these poems, with typical Midwestern restraint. Winter is nothing new, his narrator suggests, and it can be accommodated by keeping things in perspective.
This kind of quiet insistence on remaining grounded, not getting too carried away, is a signature of Kooser’s poems, and it’s evident in the collection’s first poem, “Selecting a Reader,” which he sometimes uses to open his public poetry readings. It begins as the poet fantasizes about his perfect reader, a beautiful woman who seems like a heroine in an art film, her raincoat a bit dirty because of her noble and genteel poverty. She thumbs through his poems in a bookstore, and then, as the daydream dims back into reality, passes judgment, returning the volume to the sales shelf: “For that kind of money, I can get my raincoat cleaned.”
Kooser’s puckish self-effacement – his recognition that in a world of practical urgencies, poetry doesn’t always or even usually command center stage – is part of his abiding charm. Although he served as US poet laureate and has been a university teacher, Kooser spent most of his career as an insurance executive. His poems speak without ornament of everyday life, not the preoccupations of the academy. In “At a Kitchen Table,” Kooser comes closest to describing his poetic ideal when he refers approvingly to language “plain, as of clay or wood, with a plain little song.”
Given that literary creed, it’s tempting to think of Kooser’s poems, which are as simply expressed, as simple to make, which they can’t be. Their matter-of-fact Midwestern sensibility is also informed by a playful lyricism, as in “A Mouse in a Trap,” in which he imagines the humble device of a rodent’s destruction as a tiny raft into the afterlife. Despite the landlocked terrain of Kooser’s home turf, nautical imagery comes up quite a lot in his poems, as in “The Fan in the Window,” in which he sees a box fan as the propeller of a ship “that has pushed its way through summer.” What we are all moving through, Kooser suggests, is time, a reality that has special resonance for a poet who just turned 79.
The reader hopes, in finishing this collection, that Kooser’s own journey is far from over. “Kindest Regards” is at least worth the cost of cleaning a raincoat.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”