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

Feb 23, 2012

Kevin Young's “The Mission” and Emily Dickinson's "I Heard a Fly Buzz"

The Mission by Kevin Young : Poetry Magazine

A useful, non-academic, good way to try to love poetry might be searching our own experiences for something similar to the poem we’re reading—better yet, a poem we remember and wonder why.
I suspect something like that is going on in Kevin Young’s excellent poem, “The Mission,” in which he’s remembering a funeral home across the street from his own place, probably in his youth. Those funeral scenes, homey and comforting in their way, remind him of Emily Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz (465),” which gives him his closing line. (I was also thinking of “There’s Been a Death in the Opposite House,” discussed here last March— Banjo52: Emily Dickinson, "There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House").

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm – 

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room – 

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly – 

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see – 

Among Kevin Young’s insights or propositions that I find intriguing is his finding in those funerals across the street “less/disquiet than comfort” as “the street filled with cars/for a wake.” How might he, or we, find a wake or a funeral across the street comforting? At the end, he doesn’t want the cars to pull out and drive away; instead he tries, like a child, to achieve or recover darkness by putting his hands over his face. 
Is it, ironically, in darkness and death, in hiding from a sun “too bright” that the speaker finds permanence, stability, and in that a comfort in which things and people, such as his father, no longer leave him? In fact, at a funeral, they cluster and stand in their inexpensive suits, gathered perhaps for the very sake of comforting each other and, unwittingly, the child or young man across the street. 

Another question:  a few lines into the poem, Young refers to “the sun/of the Mission,” which is the poem’s title. How should we read that and make it part of the poem, especially with “Mission” capitalized? Is the Mission life itself, or the satisfactory exit from life, with its excessive sun? Or is it something entirely other than that? 

In any case, “The Mission” is another of those works that satisfies the requirement that a poem be a gift and give us gifts along the way. Call it scattered candy if you like (big chunks of hot dog would suit me better—bread crumbs might be too humble, too dry). There are various elements in a good poem that pull us through it—happily or at least without coercion. They make us want to return, or they simply don't allow us to forget.

The Mission by Kevin Young : Poetry Magazine


Lovers' Lane