Feb 27, 2012

Ted Kooser's "Late February," Sandhill Cranes, Kensington





Late February by Ted Kooser : The Poetry Foundation


The wind was cold off Kent Lake yesterday, but the sky was pure blue, and the water looked cold and solid, but pure. It was one of those rare days when I feel beauty in a northern winter.

I had the thought too that I’ve never had an unpleasant experience at Kensington Metropark. I always feel as if I’ve entered rural America rather than the nearly five thousand planned acres where we suburbanites can forget weekday worries and feel in touch with nature for awhile.

I was excited to happen upon a pair of Sandhill Cranes, the first I’ve been able to photograph, though these shots aren’t as good as my real-life excitement was. 

As I was returning to the car, I met a chatty sixty-ish couple with two dogs, one nasty, snarling Samoyan and one friendly mutt, black and tan, medium-sized. They told me I’d missed a bald eagle in the area where I found the cranes; they were not at all impressed by my cranes. The wife seemed to be saying, “Well, of course. Who hasn’t seen Sandhill Cranes here? Are you also titillated by sparrows?”
That doesn’t match the dark turn toward the end of Ted Kooser’s “Late February,” but maybe there’s a loose connection when the subject is the beauty and doom of northern winters
 
I’m not sure I’d break Kooser's last five words into two lines, as he does, and I cannot see those children bending “to the work/of building dams,” but every other image cracks with truth and, by the way, accuracy. They are amplified by Kooser’s typically soft-spoken understatement, restraint, and dignity, which make him trustworthy, reliable, not some histrionic showman. Snow patches like discarded laundry, children who look like old men, “blue TVs/flashing . . .  in picture windows” are remarkable in the way they blend clarity, vividness and calm. I also admire the subtlety of cornfields that are being staked for suburban development, another kind of winter, one more signal of the decline of farming.


The revealing of the farmer and the likening of that to a tulip are bold turns. At first I thought, “Whoa. Easy there, Mr. Kooser. Let's not leap to a TV crime show.”  But after a couple of readings, I've warmed to that concluding simile—it’s sudden, dramatic, vital, the opposite of the ennui in the poem’s first two-thirds or so. Isn’t that precisely the way tulips and spring’s rebirth begin? If discovering a months-dead farmer is dramatic, so is the new life that replaces him. For such a laconic midwestern poem, this is startling stuff—just as it needs to be if we’re to receive, and believe, Ted Kooser’s news about life, death, and high drama, even in Nebraska.




By the way, my fairy godmother or muse or Some-Being must have been looking out for me:  I had no intention of pairing Nebraskan Ted Kooser with Sandhill Cranes, but there it is—the Platte River Valley is a renowned layover for cranes in migration.  “For the cranes, the Platte River Valley is the most important stopover on this migration. The river provides the perfect spot to rest, and the nearby farmlands and wet meadows offer an abundance of food. Without the energy gained along the Platte, cranes might arrive at their breeding grounds in a weakened condition—where food may be limited until the spring growing season begins.”  For more on cranes:  http://www.rowesanctuary.org/crane%20facts.htm

  Late February by Ted Kooser : The Poetry Foundation

14 comments:

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I spent a few weeks in the Sand Hills on the bank of the Middle Loop. One of the most pivotal experiences of my life.

Maybe the dam reference was a little hard to figure but the (stiffened from winter) children dressed and bent like old men is a fantastic visual. I do like Kooser's avoidance of sentiment and his plain speech. This may be my favorite poem you've presented. If I was a poet I'd want to write like this.

Banjo52 said...

PA, that's probably the highest compliment you could pay Kooser. "Favorite" is fine and dandy, but it seems to me poets usually say, just as you did, "I wish I'd written that."

Hannah Stephenson said...

Sheesh. That poem is crazy good. What a thunk at the end...like an anchor flung out (I guess there would be a splash if an anchor fell in the water, but this line landed with a big thunk, right?).

Evergreen is one of my favorite words (in my top ten or top fifteen, I'd say).

Banjo52 said...

Thunk's the word, Hannah. It might be one of my top ten :) And you know about thunk endings, I might say.

I'm embarrassed I never thought to list my favorite words. "Transmogrify" would be near the top.

altadenahiker said...

"The wind was cold off Kent Lake yesterday,
but the sky was pure blue, and the water looked cold and solid, but pure.
It was one of those rare days when I feel beauty in a northern winter."

I thought this was the beginning of a poem or a story, and I was hooked. I like everything about these lines -- the phrasing, the rhythm. The way it's clean and lovely and sad and chilly. This is your stuff, right? Don't stop.

Banjo52 said...

AH, thanks! Wow. There is that copyright thing just discussed at your place. I've tried to stop worrying about it, but can't. Now, I wasn't planning to go further with this particular piece, but now maybe I'll re-think it. So again, thanks.

Banjo52 said...

AH, thanks! Wow. There is that copyright thing just discussed at your place. I've tried to stop worrying about it, but can't. Now, I wasn't planning to go further with this particular piece, but now maybe I'll re-think it. So again, thanks.

Kelly said...

...like you, I would go crazy for a Sandhill Crane. I spent a wonderful afternoon in Michigan searching them out, and after watching until evening was hooked. Great photos of the pair!

Banjo52 said...

Kelly, thanks for stopping by. I don't know how (un)common they are here, but I've had plenty of opportunities with Great Blue Herons here, while this was my first with the cranes.

Stickup Artist said...

I'd be stoked too getting a photo opportunity like the one you had here. I can't believe that lady dissed your cranes!

My favorite line in T.K.'s poem is:
"the blue TVs
flashing like storms
in the picture windows"

Those are the lines I will not forget...

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Yeah

"the blue TVs
flashing like storms
in the picture windows"

I'm with SU on the above line. It's a great snippet of observation

Brenda's Arizona said...

Lovely comments, all. I agree with AH - I was hooked. For a minute, I felt the beauty of a northern winter.

Creepy but realistic ending to the poem. Do you think people just quit looking for the farmer's body? "He'll turn up in the spring thaw," they'd say. Does late February give us the hope back that we lost in the darkness of winter?

Banjo52 said...

Here's a hair I just split: I also like the blue TV light in the windows, but it loses just a gram of power for me because I've seen it elsewhere (maybe a Charles Baxter or Tobias Wolff story?)--though Kooser's storm flash is new to me, and good. AND I agree, it's a very real image.

Brenda, I think so. Late Feb. has been healing that way for me for several years now. But farther back, Feb. seemed just another ton of winter. Was I not noticing the small upward budge in temps, more sunshine hours, and the longer days? Only the shadow knows. Also, March and even April here can be pretty dismal. But lately I've become such a tough and sunny boy that I take what's better, or less bad, and run with it (usually).

altadenahiker said...

I think Richard Ford created a similar image, viewed from outside a motel. Not that that detracts from Kooser's. Glad the comments of others here made me stop and consider.

Lovers' Lane