Delights and Shadows is Ted Kooser’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry published in 2004. It is an outstanding work of poetry in its immediate accessibility, and the beckoning for a return created by the poems. Kooser trusts the power of language, and his writing does not call attention to himself as much as the subject. Yet you leave the book feeling like you’ve met a friend who just shared some great stories with you.
The book is broken into four sections, but I did not find them highlighting a change in continuity or subject. Like many great poets, Kooser looks at the everyday items around us and finds a new way of seeing them. Sometimes this backfires for poets as it can sound like a Seinfeld comedy routine, but Kooser looks more amazed at seeing something familiar for the first time. Whether is a blue, spiral notebook or a necktie, you can hear his surprise.
Not only do you see Kooser’s new look at an old item here, but you get a glimpse of his sense of humor. In many of the poems you hear the poet chuckling as he tells the story, but he never laughs at people. This is a rare trait in humanity, and it shows us a man who is both wise and humble (an even rarer trait).
The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,
paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the cold surf. He’s got his baseball cap on
backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.
The balance comes in poems addressing “heavy” topics with a light touch. Not humorous, but not needed to make more dramatic what is already dramatic. Kooser clearly deals with old age in a number of poems, and death is not too far from much of what he writes (although death, alas, does not belong solely to the aged). Having spent time watching my youngest son unsuccessfully battle cancer, I appreciated the “grace” Kooser sees in this poem.
At the Cancer Clinic
She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.
Another interesting set of poems revolves around four Civil War paintings by Winslow Homer. The paintings are not in the book, but Kooser paints them so well you can imagine them. The poems are numbered, but fall under a single title of “Four Civil War Paintings by Winslow Homer.” I find it interesting when art comments on art, and Kooser uses poetry to respond to the paintings. It is not an art critique, but a response to art. He does not examine the brushstrokes as much as the mind behind the paintings. A series of paintings you may walk too quickly by in a museum show their depth when given consideration.
A Union sniper in a tree
Some part of art is the art
of waiting – the chord
behind the tight fence
of a musical staff,
the sonnet shut in a book.
This is a painting of
waiting: the sharp crack
of the rifle still coiled
under the tiny
percussion cap, the cap
poised under the cocked
curl of the hammer,
and this young man among
the pine needles,
his finger as light as a breath
on the trigger,
just a pinpoint of light
in his one open eye,
like a star you might see
in broad daylight
if you thought to look up.
There is rarely a place to go wrong in opening this book, and it is one worth returning to again and again. For those hoping to attract people into the world of poetry, Kooser is one of those poets that non-poets will “get.”
Kooser also has a wonderful website with some of the poems, media (including nearly an hour of a poetry reading), and some great information. He is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and lives in Nebraska. He also edits the weekly newspaper column, “American Life in Poetry.”