Delights and Shadows

delights and shadowsDelights 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.

The Necktie

His hands fluttered like birds,TedKooser (1)
each with a fancy silk ribbon
to weave into their nest,
as he stood at the mirror
dressing for work, waving hello
to himself with both hands.

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.

1. Sharpshooter

Sharpshooter By Winslow Homer

By Winslow Homer

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.”




House Made of Dawn

HouseMadeo_0Also published on my Classic Reading Challenge Blog

N. Scott Momaday’s first novel, “House Made of Dawn,” is noted by some critics as sparking a renaissance in Native American literature. Published in 1969, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, rave reviews, and a place in the canon of contemporary literature.

So, it is with some hesitation that I admit to not enjoying the novel too much. There seems to be an attempt at being elusive, at showing only part of what is happening, in a way many post-modern novels do. I actually enjoy many novels without the normal narrative, or rising plot structure, but Momaday’s books just fails to connect the pieces when needed.

The novel centers around Abel, who returns to his reservation following his time in World War II. Not long after arriving at home, he murders a man. We pick up the story seven years later in Los Angeles, when Abel is let out of jail. At first, we get the story (or lack thereof) from Abel’s mind, but then it switches to the Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, who gives a long sermon. The sermon shares many stories of the Kiowa tribe, to which Momaday belongs. The tales are interesting and create a better understanding of the Kiowa tribe, but the connection of these to Abel’s situation is not clear. The last major section switches to Abel’s friend, Ben Benally’s, viewpoint of Abel. It is not a pretty picture. He cannot understand the way other Native Americans have assimilated to white culture, and he begins to drink and leaves his job. Eventually, he just disappears.

The narrative comes full circle, and is at its strongest, in the final pages of the novel. Abel disappears so he can return home to care for his dying grandfather, and there seems to be a return to his starting point as he reenters the traditions of his heritage.

As noted before, the novel is seen as creating a publishing spark for writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie. Their novels seem are clearer in their narratives, but perhaps Momaday’s challenging storyline reflects the struggle of Native Americans in contemporary life. It hits many of the themes that will dominate other novels, such as assimilation, alcohol abuse, racism, loss of tradition, and a return to Native American roots. Because of its influence, it is worth reading.