Valentines by Ted Kooser
I was pleased to see this collection come out. For the last few years, I have received the postcard valentines that Kooser has sent out. Last year’s had a comment on the bottom saying that it would be the last. Once again, the bandwagons I find end shortly after I find them.
So I picked up a copy happy to see them collected, most of which I hadn’t read before. I would occasionally stumble across some of the Valentines pinned up at a local used bookstore, so I had a chance to read a few more. Several have been included in other books. But for the most part I had read very few.
The book is illustrated by Robert Hanna, a local artist. The drawings are very sweet, and definitely work with the poems. A successful pairing. They take nothing away, and are not obvious. Mostly, as Kooser notes, drawings of his workspace, and areas surrounding his home. But the question I had after a quick first perusal was “Who is the dog?” There is a drawing of a cute, presumably black and white dog inked in to many of the drawings. How this connects to the romantic hero that is proclaimed by the poems amuses me, maybe a little too much. The ol’ dog. I won’t comment on any metaphorical meaning there. Yet I am still curious.
There is a short introduction entitled “Author's Note”, mostly a description of the manner in which the poems were written and sent. Kooser wants the poems to be fun, and I think they are. He definitely succeeds in that. He doesn’t think they will have much literary merit, but that is still to be decided. Some are very seemingly revealing, of a man grappling with growing older, watching the younger woman, sometimes they perhaps even watching him. He isn’t out of the game yet. Writing a poem for 2500 women is an enlivening task. It takes some confidence to do so, I would think both professionally, and personally.
The first poem he wrote, Pocket Poem, really does invite us to know him, and maybe as an invitation to his poetry, for the long haul, how a poet might want the reader to know his poems. “If this comes creased and creased again and soiled / as if I’d opened it a thousand times…” Really, what poet wouldn’t want a reader to do such things? Poetic ambition is clear. He wants to reach his reader and respond. Both as a valentine for love, and a poem for the reader. They are inseparable like the childlike hope giving a construction paper valentine made with "careful" hands. Handing your heart over is always scary. Handing your poem, your “special art” over is too.
Several of the early poems are set at home, domestic images, ironing boards, Formica tabletops, celery hearts and kitchen stools. The heart is definitely at home. The narrator might look out to the valentines outside, and several poems are outside of the walls of home, but they point back to the hearth. In In a Light Late Winter Wind, he notes that “valentines / over the snow – dark red / like the deep – running, veinous blood / of the married, returning / again and again to the steady heart.” These really aren’t for us.
From this point on, the poems really stretch to the world. Friends are noted, “maps of the world” explored, more freely maybe. “Seas pour to the stars.” I suspect as the mailing list grew, so would thoughts of who exactly these women were. So many, those 2600! One poem is even called Inventory. “I stick out my old man’s chest, / throw back my pigeon shoulders, and tremble a little...”
I would have trembled too, having that many people watch me. At a reading once, Kooser noted a poem he had just written, about lapping up the milk of fame.
I think, Splitting an Order might be my favorite. The last unknown one for me, as I learned about the Valentines for the next at his reading I went to, and it really captures a domestic happy moment of a long together couple. Maybe the most romantic of them all.
I have tucked the Valentines I received into the pages for the poems. The pages bend over the postcards. Intent.
Then we get to the newest and last poem, unpublished until now. The Hog-Nosed Snake. For his wife, who allowed the first poem. Nice circle.
I won’t speak to the sexual imagery of this last poem, stiff snakes indeed, but maybe such things were romantically noted all along, because again, 2600 women + 1. Or I think correctly, 1 + 2600 We are the dark ladies, shadowed behind the postcards. I think in the end, they were all for the 1. We just got to go along for the ride. Yet we viewers, receivers of these Valentines, weren’t taken lightly and that is always clear. “A moment is enough for me.” I am glad for this gift "buttered with light".
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Valentines by Ted Kooser