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#234: NOT SO ORDINARY AFTER ALL.

#234: NOT SO ORDINARY AFTER ALL.    No contemporary American poet has made his work from the details of everyday life with less apology and greater and more precise attention than Ted Kooser.  In Splitting an Order (Copper Canyon, 2014) all the situations, the subjects, are drawn from the semi-rural town existence that has been so greatly neglected in our recent verse.  Kooser wrote them in his seventies, and he reacts to older people with a special alertness, the way a toddler fastens his gaze on another of his own age.  There are barns and tractors and horses and dogs, landscape with generational history attached, indeed life with a generational history attached: people doing things their parents have done, and that their children will do after them.  This sense of community and continuity makes you realize the particular nutrients in Kooser’s work that have been missing from much of our urban writing; and his style, which preens and fusses so little, whose metaphors are not riotous or surreal but always precise and exact, discovers, in poem after poem, the scenes and objects so often underfoot and so rarely evoked.  His father shutting the windows against an oncoming storm, “the clunk of sash weights / deep in the walls”; the old objects from an estate sale, a baseball, a shoebox, a sleeve from an old 78, and “The nest of some tiny bird, / each blade of dead grass / spun into its place / on the potter’s wheel / of her busy movements, preparing a vessel for song”; his father again, the arrested rhythm of his apnea audible in the next room; Howard, a white lab, “this old sphinx / with his stiffening joints”; all seen at once spinning and still in a long familiarity.  In “Lantern,” a long disused object has years and generations ghosting around it; Kooser has been rooted long enough to sense this time passing. An old friend of mine, John Kliphan, once did a book of poems called Low Level Flying, and I thought that title would fit Kooser’s work rather nicely.  The collection touches ground with a prose piece, “Small Rooms in Time,” about the murder of a family that terribly reforms Kooser’s memory of the house both the victims and he lived in for a time; more than anything I’ve read, it restores, after decades of violent movies and thrillers and such, the uncomprehending horror of such a crime; and then, restores us with a sense of how memory and the reflection of art may help us survive such terrible events.  Splitting an Order cleanses its everyday subjects of anything like sentimentality or grandiosity; he says of that scene of shutting windows, “more than sixty years have passed / and now I understand that it was / not so ordinary after all.”  Precisely.

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