Delights And Shadows, by Ted Kooser
This book was a well-earned winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2004. After having read two previous books by this poet, I figured that I had a pretty good sense of the kind of writer he was, and that sense generally found itself present here, as the author had a wide variety of inspiration and his poetry was deeply reflected and highly colored with melancholy. At less than 90 pages, this is a short book of poetry , as many books of poetry are, and it is a deeply enjoyable one. Yet its enjoyment is not the sort of enjoyment one gets from something that is happy, but rather the enjoyment that comes from recognizing the poetry as authentic and deeply moving. And as someone who can certainly be moved by poetry, whether as a reader of it or as a writer, this poetry is the sort that I imagine comes particularly well from someone who has lived a long life and is reflecting on death and loss, as well as delight. Perhaps it is a bad thing to reflect upon loss, in that it can remind us of our own griefs, but this task is done well enough here that it seems churlish to complain.
The slightly more than 80 poems in this collection are divided into four sections. The first section is called “Walking On Tiptoe” and contains poems about subjects as diverse as a visit to the cancer clinic, tattoos, and visiting a cosmetics department of a store, as well as rainy mornings and mourners. The second section, “The China Painters,” includes the titular poem as well as reflections on memory, the author’s mother and father, dishwater and depression glass, as well as creamed corn and an old cemetery. The third section, “Bank Fishing For Bluegills,” contains poems about turkey vultures and and a moth as well as the home medical dictionary, as well as what is, I think, the book’s best poem overall, a musing on four Civil War paintings by Winslow Homer. The fourth and final section, “That Was I,” gives the reader a chance to look at an unsuccessful garage sale, starlight, a spiral notebook that contains too many subjects for the lives of its elderly writers, and a glimpse of the eternal. The poems in general are reflective and meditative and deeply thoughtful and creative.
It is hard to know what audience would be most appreciative of a book of poetry like this one. To be sure, poets in general are read mostly by other poets, and the fact that I both read and write poetry a fair bit is probably not coincidental. Yet aside from the normal audience of other poets–who were quick to appreciate this book and recognize its excellence–it is hard to tell who exactly would most appreciate this book. Those who can relate to the author’s musings on death, loss, illness, approaching night, and related subjects likely could write similar musings themselves. And those who would do best to gain wisdom and insight from these meditative pieces, including the pieces on the Civil War and the way that the author makes a painting come alive by putting himself in the place of the subjects of the paintings, are likely those whose youth and vitality would delude them into thinking that they will last forever until the moment that they vanish irrevocably. Perhaps it is best that a book like this exists, to be enjoyed and appreciated by whoever comes along with the right frame of mind to appreciate both its shadows and its delights.
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