Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Micro Review: Sure Signs

I suppose I picked up Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems by Ted Kooser at some AWP conference, because while the book was published in 1980, my copy is crisp and clean (excepting my recent reading of it).

The quotes on the back by poets such as Denise Levertov are all predicting the book will become (so by now has become) a classic, and while there's no doubt Kooser's poetry is in the vain of the best rural poets (I think here of Richard Hugo, William Stafford, Wendell Berry, and even Robert Frost, all whom seem inspirations for Kooser) I'm not sure it qualifies as "classic." Maybe I don't really know what that means when it comes to the written word. My first car was definitely a classic: a 1966 Ford Mustang. I enjoy some good ol' rock and roll that we might call classic--"Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones, for example. But calling a book of poems a classic is tougher, and if I had to choose among the 165 books of poetry on my shelf (I just counted them), I wouldn't right now put this particular volume among the top.

Still, there's much to admire in Sure Signs, including brevity, an amazing (if sometimes almost overbearing) command of metaphor, and a strong sense of place: rural and small-town Nebraska, mostly. I can't say I've read much Kooser before, though undoubtedly I have--he was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, and writes the "American Life in Poetry" weekly column, to which I subscribe. In both cases, though, his job is primarily to promote the poetry of others, and poetry as an American good. Yet right away I recognized the first poem, "Selecting a Reader," a sort of inside joke for poets, I think, though I hope you don't have to be a writer of poems to enjoy this particular one.

My favorite, though, is not quite in the middle of the collection, and I realize I like it not only because of the craft and quality of the poem itself, but because I'm a father:

At the End of the Weekend

It is Sunday afternoon,
and I suddenly miss
my distant son, who at ten
has just this instant buzzed
my house in a flying
cardboard box, dipping
one wing to look down over
my shimmering roof, the yard,
the car in the drive. In his room
three hundred miles from me,
he tightens his helmet,
grips the controls, turns
loops and rolls. My windows
rattle. On days like this,
the least quick shadow crossing
the page makes me look up
at the sky like a goose,
squinting to see that flash
that I dream is his thought of me
daring to fall through the distance,
then climbing, full throttle, away.

So is Sure Signs a classic? I can't say. This poem certainly feels like a "classic" to me, like Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Walz," a definite classic. As for the collection, take a peek and judge for yourself. I read it in one not-too-long sitting, and can recommend at least that.

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