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Birney Imes: Looking for Ted Kooser


Birney Imes



When my brother Frank was paralyzed and laid up in a hospital in California, we took turns sitting with him. While Beth was there, she read to him from a book by Ted Kooser. She had gone in a bookstore in Santa Monica looking for something to read and, as she remembers, the book jumped off the shelf into her hand. She''d never heard of the guy. 


Frank is a man of many interests, but listening to an account of life in rural Nebraska is not one of them. Beth, on the other hand, was moved by Kooser''s heartfelt descriptions of the everyday world, so much so, she would often get choked up reading them. Thinking her ward asleep, she would read aloud some passages over and over. And, Frank, who then was unable to speak and could only move his eyelids, was the most captive of audiences. 


When he regained the ability to move his neck, his mother-in-law devised an apparatus with which he could communicate, a baseball cap equipped with a laser he used to point out letters on a chart. Upon first seeing Beth back in Columbus, Frank couldn''t wait to get his headgear on quickly enough. Ever the jokester, he grinned as he started spelling, N-E-B-R ...  


"Nebraska?" Beth interrupted, amazed that he remembered. "You want me to read to you about Nebraska?" 


Frank, still grinning, shook his head violently. 


Frank''s doing a lot better -- he''s driving and working out at a gym. Since then Kooser has served as the U.S. Poet Laureate and in 2005 won a Pulitzer Prize. A retired insurance executive, Kooser has published 10 books and is a visiting professor of English at the University of Nebraska. About Kooser, one critic has said, "(he) has written more perfect poems than any poet of his generation." 


On Tuesday Kooser gave a reading at Mississippi State University. 




Flying at Night  


Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations. 


Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies 


like a snowflake falling on water. Below us, 


some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death, 


snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn 


back into the little system of his care. 


All night, the cities, like shimmering novas, 


tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his. 




I''d hoped to attend the 4 p.m. reading, but it wasn''t until almost 5 before I could get away. Hoping to catch the tail end of the event and hear a poem or two, I lit out for Starkville anyway. For sure, I thought, I''d make it in time for the book signing afterward. 


No such luck. In Lee Hall, there was not the first sign of a poetry reading, not even a stray program on the floor, nor a soul around to ask if the event had even taken place. 


The day was brilliantly sunny and warm. On the quad students were lounging in the grass, throwing Frisbees, standing in groups talking; maybe one of them was writing a love poem. I wandered into the Union and there stumbled upon the opening of a student art exhibit. 


Maybe it was spring, the pollen, the day, but everywhere I looked the world seemed alive, vibrant; lovely things were happening all around. The only logical thing to do, it seemed, was to keep doing the illogical, looking for what I knew I wouldn''t find, Ted Kooser. 


The campus Barnes and Noble had no Kooser books; a sales manager had taken them to the signing and had not returned. After grazing awhile in the poetry section, I headed for the coffee bar in search of companionship for the ride home. So far, it had been an almost perfect outing, even without the main attraction. 


As I was starting my car to leave, Kooser arrived with his faculty escort, and, shortly after, so did his books. He signed for me a slim volume of love poems titled "Valentines." 


The book is a collection of poems Kooser wrote as valentines for the women he knew. In the beginning he sent a poem to 50 women, many of them the wives of friends. He did this each year, and over time the list grew each year to the point, that by 2007 he was sending a Valentine poem (postmarked "Valentine, Nebraska") to 2,600 women. 


In the introduction Kooser writes: "My wife, Kathleen, didn''t seem to mind, and she''s tolerated this foolishness of mine ... " She''s not only a good sport; she also knows that though I''m a flirt, I''m pretty much a harmless geezer ..." 


In ''07 Kooser ended his Valentine''s Day custom with a poem he wrote to his wife. The book was published the next year. 


Here''s one of those poems. 




In the Alley 


In the alley behind the florist''s shop, 


a huge white garbage truck was parked and idling. 


In a cloud of exhaust, two men in coveralls 


and stocking caps, their noses dripping, 


were picking through the florist''s dumpster 


and each had selected a fistful of roses. 




As I walked past, they gave me a furtive, 


conspiratorial nod, perhaps sensing 


that I, too (though in my business suit and tie) 


am a devotee of garbage -- an aficionado 


of the wilted, the shopworn, and the free -- 


and that I had for days been searching 


beneath the heaps of worn-out, faded words 


to find this brief bouquet for you. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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Reader Comments

Article Comment elvira commented at 4/11/2010 9:27:00 AM:

Beautiful words from Mr Kooser. Sounds like you had a fun adventure! Thanks for sharing.


Article Comment A Elliott commented at 4/11/2010 11:54:00 AM:

Wonderful column!! We need more beautiful language and less profanity. I wish our politicians understood this. AE


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