An Interview with Ted Kooser

Judith Harris | October/November 2010

Ted Kooser
Ted Kooser

EXCERPT

Ted Kooser is the author of twelve collections of poetry including Delights and Shadows, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Other poetry collections include Sure Signs, Flying at Night, Weather Central, and Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry. Among his other honors are two NEA fellowships; the Kunitz, Hugo, and Boatright prizes; inclusion in Best American Poetry (2003) and Best American Essays (2005); first place in ForeWord Magazine's nonfiction competition; and a notable book citation from The American Library Association. In 2004, he was named U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry and served two terms (2004-2006). Kooser lives in Nebraska, and teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His memoir Lights on a Ground of Darkness, which was published in a limited gift edition by the University of Nebraska Press in 2005, was issued as a trade paperback in 2009. A children's book, Bag in the Wind, was published by Candlewick Press.

Judith Harris: Eudora Welty wrote that "place will endow," and she saw the virtues of rootedness as a means of storytelling. You have said that you don't consider yourself a "regionalist," which makes sense to me because these crucial details in the poems point to a vision that is much greater than setting. In your prose memoir Local Wonders, however, place seems to preserve the past, but at the same time it is fluid and reflective of subtle changes in the people who are practically or emotionally dependent on place. What does place mean to you? In your poetry, do you find yourself creating new places or renewing the old ones, or both?

Ted Kooser: When I listen to everyday conversations, I've noticed that nearly every anecdote opens by establishing a setting: "I was in Houston last week..." If place is left out of a story, you can count on the listener to ask, "Where did that happen?" Thus place is inseparable from how we talk about experience, and we probably have been doing this since long before language was written down. As to whether I create new places or revisit and refresh the old ones... if I have ever "created" a setting, I've merely assembled it from places I've been familiar with.

Harris: Is Local Wonders compiled from an existing journal? Have you always kept a journal? Is it portable like the painting easel you built to fit on your steering wheel, or do you write at home?

Kooser: Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps is a compilation of short pieces written over a twenty year period. Since I always include settings in my writing, and since settings include seasons, the individual pieces fell into four relatively equal piles. At that point it seemed I'd been assembling a book of the seasons without knowing it. All of those pieces arose from journal writing. I customarily do my daily writing at home, very early in the morning, a practice I began when I had a full-time job at the insurance company.

Harris: Talking about journals and notebooks, you have a poem called "Spiral Notebook" which ends with these lines:

you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.

I've been thinking about how your poetry depends a lot on wonderment, especially in Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry with Jim Harrison. It is as if the poet renews the wonderment the first person would have felt at creation. What do you recollect of your first wonderments growing up?

Kooser: I fear I use the words wonderful and marvelous all too much when I'm talking to people, but both wonders and marvels are very important to me and help keep me delighted with life, and I look for marvels under every stone in the road. To show my readers something remarkable about an ordinary, ubiquitous thing is part of my calling as a writer. The most meaningful compliment I've ever received came from a reader, years ago, who told me that after reading a poem I published about mice moving their nests out of a freshly plowed field, she would never look at a plowed field in the spring in quite the same way. Yes! I said to myself, that is what I want to do with my life; to serve others in that way, to be of service.
As to early wonderment, I remember something that happened when I was a little boy. My family was visiting relatives on a farm, and after supper I went out on the back stoop and sat by myself looking at the starry sky and listening to the crickets. Behind me, I could hear the family talking in the kitchen. I glanced down and, right beside me, as if to keep me company, was a big brown toad. We sat there looking into the night without a word between us, like a couple who had been married so long that words were no longer necessary. I have been blessed with delights like that all my life.

My poems are accessible to a broad general audience, and that helps immensely. Poets are always complaining that nobody buys books of poetry, but if we want to sell books, we have to write books that people want to buy.

Harris: About the plowed field-there is one place in Local Wonders where you write about seeing the tree branches as antlers-and how that vehicle changes how we view things, as if a good metaphor is so natural that it seems to the reader as if it's always been that way. Metaphor certainly vitalizes language, otherwise it would exhaust into cliches. Do you think that Williams succeeded in writing anti-poetic "metaphorless" poems? What about Karl Shapiro's "The Fly"? Was there a metaphor in there? He was your teacher; did you ever hear him read the poem out loud? What was the audience's response?

Kooser: There are some Williams poems that don't use metaphor as we know it, and others in which metaphor is central, as in that one in which old age is a flight of small cheeping birds skimming bare trees above a snow glaze.
In "The Fly," Karl begins by saying the fly is a hideous little bat as small as "snot," and that's enough of a figure to capture what we detest about house flies. I did hear him read that poem once or twice, and seem to remember him enjoying making us squirm, but that was forty-five years ago and memory fades.

Harris: "To Waken an Old Lady," the Williams poem you just referred to, is the poem that launches off with "Old age is a flight of cheeping birds..." and then the vehicle takes over as if it were the tenor-circling back to old age by inference. You talk about this process of diversion in making a poem-I think you attributed an idea to John Berger.

Kooser: I haven't read Berger in a long time, but he was writing there about how artists draw. They begin with their concentration mostly on the subject beyond them, but at some point the drawing itself becomes of more interest, and the subject falls back. There are points at which the vehicle of a metaphor becomes of more interest than the tenor, and takes over.

Harris: In his essay "What Is Not Poetry?" Karl Shapiro defines his conception of the poet:

The poet does not see the world differently, and everything in it... what the poet sees with his always new vision is not what is "imaginary"; he sees what others have forgotten how to see. The poet is always stripping away the veils and showing us his reality.

I can't think of a better description of your process. For you, what is the relationship between the imagination and reality? Doesn't Shapiro sound a bit like Stevens here?

Kooser: I like that Karl said "his reality"; recognizing that reality for each of us is unique. For me, the imaginary can seem every bit as real as is "reality," which is why it is possible in a poem like Frost's "The Silken Tent" to completely lose track of the tenor, the woman about whom he's writing, and accept the vehicle, the silken tent, as the reality. I have a very vivid imagination, and sometimes when I am completely awake but daydreaming, I'll imagine something so frightening that I scare the hell out of myself and jump right out of the chair. So I am often on the reverse side of the mirror looking back at the world.

Harris: You've written about this in an essay entitled "Faith and Metaphor," which uses the Frost poem in comparing world religions and their relationship to divinity to poetic vehicle and tenor. I found it to be very affirmative. Could you describe the gist of it?

Kooser: In that essay, I suggest that all religions can be seen to be metaphorical vehicles, all of them referring back to a common tenor, which is a belief in some kind of a great mystery or unifying order beyond us. For example, when I participate in the Episcopal liturgy, I am immersing myself in the Episcopal vehicle. All of the warring between religions is the warring of competitive metaphors, but the tenor is the same for all, no matter what we call it, or call Him.

Harris: What was your graduate experience like? Who were you reading then? What was the trend in poetry as you began to write?

Kooser: There was no creative writing program at Nebraska when I went there, and I was enrolled in a regular scholarly MA program. I have never been equipped for serious scholarship, and all I cared about was writing poetry. I spent much of my time following Karl around, learning what it was to be a poet. I watched him at work on his prose poems in The Bourgeois Poet, which he was finishing then. As to the rest of my program, I didn't do anything I was supposed to, and the department took away my assistantship after one year of bad grades and misbehavior. It was my inability to fit into an academic program that killed off my potential to be a professor. In those days I was reading Karl's poems, and those of Williams, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, May Swenson, and others. Whatever was at hand, I read. May Swenson was an important early influence. She seemed to be able to write in every form and to write well about anything. I wish more young poets were familiar with her work.
After I was tossed out of grad school, I went to work in the life insurance business, not as a salesman, but as a clerk at a desk, and I did that for thirty-five years. I occasionally taught a night class in beginning poetry writing as an adjunct, but that was the extent of my involvement with the academic world. I was good enough at holding down a desk job to be a vice president when I retired. I did eventually finish my MA degree by taking night classes, but it took me six years. I finished in part because my father told me he was tired of writing, in his annual Christmas letters, "Ted is working on his Master's degree."

Harris: Your friend Leonard Nathan had interesting things to say about American poetry in that essay entitled "The Private I in Contemporary Poetry." He said that the main aim of poetry is pathos, and pathos seems to demand the convention of a personal voice and loosened form and structure, and yet he had an awareness of tradition? What was your friendship with him like? You said he read and edited your poems? Actually you called it a "touch." He touched them.

Kooser: Leonard was a professor of rhetoric and not of creative writing. I say that to point out that he was a professional scholar, with a PhD in Yeats's drama, as well as being a fine poet. If he said that the main aim of poetry is pathos, he had good reason to say it, and we should all be thinking about that.
When I was about thirty, I saw a poem of Leonard's in the New Republic and wrote him to say how much I liked it. Whence ensued a correspondence of thirty-five years in which we exchanged poems by mail and frequently talked on the phone. When he died, I wrote a piece for the funeral that was later published in Prairie Schooner in which I said that I doubted that I had a poem in print that Leonard hadn't had his hands on at some point. His friendship was one of the greatest gifts of my life. And he affected the lives of many other writers younger than he, such as Naomi Shihab Nye. Both Naomi and I were devastated when Leonard developed Alzheimer's disease. There was a heartbreaking moment when Carol, his wife, told me "Leonard will never write again, Ted, but he walks around with a pencil in his hand." Carol has since died, too. They were fine people.
Leonard's poetry never got the attention it deserved, and perhaps a few people reading this interview will take a look at his books. The Potato Eaters, a late book from Orchises Press, would be a good introduction.

Harris: One digression here-Orchises Press was started by Roger Lathbury, who teaches right here at George Mason University where AWP is based. Orchises was a labor of love for Roger who started it on a single idea about enriching the lives of others with poetry. Tell us about your long relationship with your publishers at Copper Canyon and University of Nebraska. What is the state of small press publishing of poetry these days?

Kooser: I've been very fortunate in securing publishers for my work, beginning when I was thirty and the University of Nebraska Press published my first book of poems, Official Entry Blank. They had a poetry series in those days but discontinued it in the early '70s. Then, about ten years later, Ed Ochester wrote to me saying that he had read a lot of my work in chapbooks and journals, and thought I might want to consider doing a selected poems with Pittsburgh. That led to three books with them. Much later, Pitt combined my first two books with them into one volume, Flying at Night. Ed didn't want the fourth manuscript I sent him back in 1999, but Jerry Costanzo at Carnegie Mellon did, and Winter Morning Walks was published by Jerry the following year. Then Jim Harrison and I did our Braided Creek book with Copper Canyon, where Jim was already publishing, and when I had my next book of poems ready, Delights & Shadows, Copper Canyon accepted that one. I am very happy to have Copper Canyon as the publisher of my poems. The University of Nebraska Press has published my prose, two books of what we might classify as memoir and two books on writing. They also published my book of valentine poems and reprinted my poems about the blizzard of 1888, but I intend to keep my regular poetry collections with Copper Canyon. As to the state of small press publishing, it seems to me to be very healthy. The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, published by Dustbooks, is as fat as a metropolitan phone book, and that testifies to the many presses in operation. I've done some small press editing and publishing. It's not the kind of thing anyone should choose as a career because very few presses are ever in the black, but it's a worthy activity.

When it comes to looking at works of art, I do like sketches far better than finished paintings, in part because with a sketch we are always aware of the effort of drawing or painting, whereas finished works often bury that activity behind the polished surface.

Harris: I read that Delights & Shadows has sold around 100,000 copies. To what do you attribute that success?

Kooser: The Pulitzer Prize, of course, and the publicity that goes with it. But I've been told that the book is selling well six years later because of what publishers call word-of-mouth-people just telling each other about the book. My poems are accessible to a broad general audience, and that helps immensely. Poets are always complaining that nobody buys books of poetry, but if we want to sell books, we have to write books that people want to buy. Just because so many of us work at universities doesn't mean that our poems must read like research.

Harris: You always have such a succinct way of putting things, getting right to the heart of the matter. You have a relationship with the spiritual side of things without making liturgical or scriptural references. What role does religion or the spiritual play in your life and your writing? Were you raised as an Episcopalian?

Kooser: The Koosers were Methodists, and my mother's family, the Mosers, were German Lutherans, but for years I stayed away from formal religion altogether. Then I spent about ten years attending Unitarian services in Lincoln because the minister was such a fine speaker. My wife and I became Episcopalians only about two years ago, and we belong to a tiny congregation in an almost exclusively Lutheran town. I am not a traditional believer, but instead someone who likes to sit for an hour on Sunday morning with a group of people who are trying, one hopes, to think in the right direction. For me, church is mostly about community.

Harris: This question is in two parts: Let's turn to Delights and Shadows, for which you won the Pulitzer Prize. Looking at your earlier books, such as Sure Signs and Flying at Night, it seems to me that this book is about absence as much as presence-things and people seen in their solitariness and illuminated against a background of darkness. The play of light and shadow is alive in these poems. Do you believe, as the Impressionists did, that light saturates all objects, light being more important than line? Do you prefer the sense of a sketch as opposed to the finished picture, a spontaneous work, rather than a calculated one?

Kooser: It's true that the poems in Delights & Shadows are such that the delights play in front of a field of darkness, but don't you think that that's true of everything we do? Every activity in life is undertaken with death observing from a distance. Joyce's great story, "The Dead," is all about this, with death as the backdrop for the feasts we enjoy. At so many feasts, we find ourselves setting a place for the dead-"Oh, don't you wish Aunt Mabel were here?"-and the nearness of death lends the food savor.
As to drawing and painting, line is used to suggest mass by defining it, and that would seem to make mass more important than line, but it would take somebody like Gombrich to speak of this with any authority. When it comes to looking at works of art, I do like sketches far better than finished paintings, in part because with a sketch we are always aware of the effort of drawing or painting, whereas finished works often bury that activity behind the polished surface. John Marin's apparently dashed-off watercolor seascapes are far more engaging to me than any number of perfectly finished marine paintings.

Harris: "Every activity in life is undertaken with death observing from a distance." You also write in a poem: "There are days when the fear of death / is as ubiquitous as light. It illuminates / everything." In your memoir, Lights on a Ground of Darkness (which I will ask about later) your grandfather had something to say at the cemetery.

Kooser: I think the passage you are referring to is the one in which my grandfather says to the groundskeeper at the cemetery, "Keep your shovel sharp." Granddad was then in his nineties, and had lost his wife, his brothers and sisters, a son, a son-in-law, and most of his friends. It's my impression that by the time we get that old we may be at ease with death.

Harris: What did you learn from Frost about encounters with the natural world?

Kooser: Though the setting of many of Frost's poems is the rural outdoors, I feel that for him nature is just that, a setting within which humans are the real interest. But of course there is a lot of Frost to think about, and I'd have to give that question more thought. There are those poems like the one about the moth and the heal-all plant in which he very closely observes nature.

Harris: Do you believe that some poems written and read for solace truly provide comfort to us when we are most tested? Poetry, as Don Hall has said, can give us an education in emotions by providing the words for what we all experience in grief or joy.

Kooser: Tens of thousands of people have read and are reading the Psalms, and I'd guess many of them do it to find some solace. For me, the solace in reading comes not so much from any inspiring message the poem offers, but from the beauty of the writing. Beauty offers solace, or so it does for me. For example, I find a lot of solace in reading, from time to time, Robert Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields.

Harris: How did you meet your wife Kathleen?

Kooser: We met in Lincoln in 1976. We had mutual acquaintances and would run into each other from time to time. On our first evening together, we took a long walk and discovered that not only had she lived in my home town, Ames, Iowa, as a little girl, but that their house was on my paper route. Her father was in the Air Force, and he was stationed in Ames for several years, at the ROTC unit at Iowa State.

Harris: What are your discussions like when she comes home from the newspaper office? Do you talk more about politics than literature?

Kooser: Kathy is now retired from her editorship of the Lincoln daily paper, but when she was working we did talk about politics and current affairs a great deal, rarely literature. I save the shop talk for my writer friends, like you. It can be dangerous to bore a spouse.

Harris: How have your children reacted to your success that has drawn such national and international attention?

Kooser: I have just one son, Jeff, who has children of his own, and I think he's proud of my achievements. His interests are very different from mine.

Harris: You have said that you have taken traits from one branch of the family; I believe Grandmother Kooser. What kind of a woman was she?

Kooser: She was a stern, sober, judgmental woman, and there are times when I am stern. And I have been sober for many years. And I am trying hard not to be judgmental. I more closely identify with my Moser ancestors. Grandfather Kooser died when I was two, and Grandmother Kooser when I was about ten. The Mosers lived many years longer and I knew them much better. My grandfather Moser lived to be ninety-eight and he and I were on the planet together for thirty-five years.

Harris: You like the Ash Can painters, their truth and honesty and desire for democracy. Is there one painter in particular? I always think of Williams's "Proletarian Portrait" as a poetic ancestor of your portraits of people caught unsentimentally in their unique and specific environment.

Kooser: Robert Henri was a Nebraskan, and his paintings mean a lot to me and to other Nebraskans. But I also like the urban paintings of John Sloan. I've read Sloan's journals, and would love to have met him. There is a painting by Sloan in the Brooklyn Museum, of the excavation for Grand Central, that looks so much like the photographs of what was left of the World Trade Center towers that it's chilling.

For me, the solace in reading comes not so much from any inspiring message the poem offers, but from the beauty of the writing. Beauty offers solace, or so it does for me.

Harris: Ecological writing and eco-poetry have gained prominence as genres committed to studying the landscape in art. You've said you're interested in this movement. Can you tell us about it?

Kooser: At the university where I teach, there is a lot of interest in what they're calling eco-criticism, and I have sat in on some discussions, which I've found to be interesting. But it seems to me to be one of those fields in academia, like creative nonfiction, that has come up with a new moniker for something we've always had, in an effort to inaugurate yet another field of professional inquiry.

Harris: Your mother taught you to use your observing powers to regard everything in creation, and added that this capacity for being surprised by things will never leave you lonely. Rilke said something of the same thing as he was giving advice to Mr. Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet: "If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it, blame yourself; because there is no poor, indifferent place." You must receive many letters asking your advice.

Kooser: I do get a lot of mail from people who aspire to be writers, and my advice to them is simple: Read, read, read. I tell them that reading is how we learn to write, and that they can learn from any and all kinds of writing, good and bad.

Harris: Critics have been consistent in praising your work, One critic wrote that your poetry rings particularly true, allowing the human sound of being to exist on the page. Others talk about your clarity, mastery of subjective description, and perfect self-containment. The effects may appear simple-but I find your work full of paradox, where nothing is ever so simple. Observation takes discipline. Have you always been a disciplined person? Are you often surprised by your own epiphanies in poetry as well as prose?

Kooser: Not every critic has liked my work, and a few have disliked it intensely, but I have learned not to read anything that's published about my writing, good or bad. The bad reviews hurt and the good ones all too often feel overblown.
As to disciplines, I have grown to be ever more disciplined as I've grown older, which I suppose has to do with a need for control. The older I've become, the more there is that begs to be controlled, and I have developed disciplines to address that.
As to surprises, I am often surprised, astonished even, by interesting associations that surface while I'm working. The most fascinating metaphors seem to arrive through some door that can only be opened during the contemplative act of writing. They never arrive through the doors of intellect or reason.

Harris: How do you view elegy? You have written some of the finest elegies of ordinary people, and people who were only acquaintances. Talking about simplicity and understatement, I would imagine you appreciated Robinson's "Richard Cory" when you were a student?

Kooser: Robinson was one of the poets I read with great interest when I was young. Robinson and Masters and Sherwood Anderson seemed to be showing me ways I could write about the rural and small town people among whom I lived. As to elegy, it seems to me that almost all of my poems are elegiac, but I suppose there are exceptions.

Harris: You referred to Eliot and Pound as writing "difficult, challenging poetry" and postmodernism is equally challenging-with its linguistic turn. The splitting of signifier and signified denies language its unifying function, making it more difficult to articulate what the deep image poets articulated-a relationship between the secular and ultimate. How do you feel about the current trends in poetry?

Kooser: A poem either interests and moves me, or it doesn't, and I'm not at all interested in categories or theory. I respond to poems as a reader, with my heart, not as a scholar, with my intellect.

Harris: Do you think graduate schools should be educations in form and meter-or theories of poetics? Or both?

Kooser: Far be it from me to make pronouncements as to what graduate schools should be doing. Remember that I was thrown out of graduate school. When I teach, I do two things. I encourage my students and I try to help them make their poems more effective. None of that involves theory, but it might involve form.

Harris: Could we have an example of one of your favorite poems-to be reprinted here-at this juncture as we near the close of our interview?

Kooser: I am very fond of my little poem, "Screech Owl," from Delights & Shadows. I believe that it's my writing at its surest and truest.

Screech Owl

All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars. Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness
it calls out again and again.

Harris: There it is: the mystery of where things go, along with a faith in their continued presence. Coleridge said fusing oppositions such as light and dark, birth and death, sleep and waking, was the task of the poet.

Kooser: I was much blessed to have that little owl spend time on our farm.

Harris: I just read Lights on a Ground of Darkness. It took my breath away-this crisp, revivification of place and time, Guttenberg, Iowa, in which memory comes alive in the people remembered. You wrote it for your mother?

Kooser: Mother was very ill and not expected to live more than a few months, and for years I had wanted to write something about her family. Her severely disabled brother seemed to be an armature about which the family's love was wound, and I wanted to write about that as well as about others in the family. I determined to get it written before she was gone, as a gift to her, and I was able to show her the manuscript a couple of months before she died. I was worried that it might make her sad, since nearly everyone I talk about was dead, but she liked it. You mentioned elegy earlier. This little book is elegy through and through.

The most fascinating metaphors seem to arrive through some door that can only be opened during the contemplative act of writing. They never arrive through the doors of intellect or reason.

Harris: Tell us about Uncle Elvy.

Kooser: He was my mother's one surviving brother. Another little boy had died at birth. His given name was Alvah, and he had cerebral palsy and was terribly disabled. In ways, his frailty held the whole family together, and that was his gift to us. He was never institutionalized, and was able to live his whole life with his family. The way his parents loved and cared for him was the soul of goodness. When my grandmother died in her late eighties, and my grandfather, then in his mid-nineties, moved into a nursing home, Elvy moved into the room with him. He survived my grandfather by a couple of years, and I'm sure they were the only lonely years he ever experienced.

Harris: His death is described with remarkable pathos. And there appears a sign. Your father looks in the mirror in your uncle's room and sees a full handprint, intervening between your father and his own reflection, a sign of death. Again, the light is ubiquitous with death, but perseveres.

Kooser: That happens in that nursing home I mentioned just now.

Harris: Finally, the poem in memory of your mother, written on your birthday, is a unique poem for you. It has a perfect symmetrical form, and the caesuras fall equidistant to one another in each stanza respectively.

Kooser: I hadn't noticed that, but if that happens, I'll take credit for it. If you make a three-cushion bank shot in a game of Eight Ball, you want to pretend you planned it that way.

Harris: The end of the poem refers to your own axiom, rekindled through hers: "Were it not for the way you taught me to look / at the world, to see the life at play in everything, I would have to be lonely forever." But the reader feels that you will be lonely for her-or that loneliness will be a way to remember her by seeing the life in her death. Delight in shadows, right?

Kooser: Yes.

Harris: Finally, how did you envision your role as U.S. Poet Laureate; were you intent on making poetry more accessible to a wider audience?

Kooser: Because I was the first poet laureate picked from The Great Plains, I wanted to prove that somebody from out here could do it, and I threw myself into it, seven days a week. I wanted to show everyday readers that poetry needn't be feared and shunned, that it had something to offer. I made 200 appearances in the twenty months of my two terms, and did around 100 interviews. I talked to librarians, book clubs, students, Kiwanians, Rotarians. I started my newspaper column, "American Life in Poetry," which is now five years old and still up and running. We have around four million weekly readers in a couple of hundred papers. I publish short poems that I think average readers can appreciate. Bob Hass also started a column, "Poet's Choice," when he was the Laureate. It was a longer and much more explicative column, very well done.

AWP

Judith Harris is the author of two books of poetry from LSU Press, Atonement and The Bad Secret and a critical book from SUNY Press, Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing. She is a recipient of arts grants and has taught at several universities in Washington D.C.

EXCERPT

from Flying at Night: Poems 1965–1985
by Ted Kooser

The Very Old

The very old are forever
hurting themselves,

burning their fingers
on skillets, falling

loosely as trees
and breaking their hips

with muffled explosions of bone.
Down the block

they are wheeled in
out of our sight

for years at a time.
To make conversation,

the neighbors ask
if they are still alive.

Then, early one morning,
through our kitchen windows

we see them again,
first one and then another,

out in their gardens
on crutches and canes,

perennial,
checking their gauges for rain.

After My Grandmother's Funeral

After my grandmother's funeral,
as the dark river of mourners
murmured beneath me, I lay
on the floor of their attic,
watching the afternoon light
fade from the vault of old rafters
and dim to a film of gray dust
on her dresses and shoes.
I closed my eyes and slept,
but no dream came to me;
the coffin of that attic
was not to be borne aloft
on the good shoulders of cousins;
nor was it to roll on chrome wheels
to an altar with candles;
nor was I to awaken to find
my fingers laced loosely
over my heart. No dream came then
to help me leap over
the years to my death.
I awakened still young,
still sad, no longer welcome
in that darkening house.

Flying at Night

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
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.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

 

There Is Always a Little Wind

There is always a little wind
in a country cemetery,
even on days when the air stands
still as a barn in the fields.

You can see the old cedars,
stringy and tough as maiden aunts,
taking the little gusts of wind
in their aprons like sheaves of wheat

and hear above you the warm
and regular sweep of what being cut
and gathered, the wagons creaking,
the young men breathing at their work.

 

Porch Swing in September

The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.
She is saying it's time for that swinging to be done with,
time that the creaking and pinging and popping
that sang through the ceiling were past,
time now for the soft vibrations of moths,
the wasp tapping each board for an entrance,
the cool dewdrops to brush from her work
every morning, one world at a time.


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