Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Local Wonders - Ted Kooser

Most books you read are a little bit like some other book you’ve read, but Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps  is a thing apart. Sure, it describes living on a farm, and it follows the seasons. Lots of other books do those things. But no other book I’ve read records the minutia of daily life as economically as does this one, while never oozing out into an environmental harangue or collapsing inward toward a personal meditation, compete with quotes from Thoreau and Hugh of St. Victor. The closest Kooser comes to philosophizing is on those occasions when he repeats an old Bohemian saying such as “The cat makes sure which chin it may lick,” or “He who goes out seeking other people’s sausages often loses his own ham,” or "He who places his ladder too steeply will easily fall backward."   

Local Wonders is, then, an account of what one sees and hears in the course of a year when living in a stretch of hilly country twenty miles north and west of Lincoln, Nebraska. There are lots of cottonwood trees, antique farm machinery, bugs, snakes, weather (good and bad), neighborliness, chain saws, frozen pipes, political commentary, trips to the hardware store, and other rustic stuff.

But Kooser is a poet by trade, and he describes things very well. For example, in the first page he compares the meandering of the River Platte to that of “a man who has lost a hubcap and is looking for it in the high grass on both sides of the road.” The important detail, here, is that the man is looking on both sides. 

Immediately following that little gem, Kooser comes to the river’s quicksand, which contains (he tells us) not the bones of dead pioneers, but “dozens of cautionary tales about toddlers who wandered away from family picnics and were sucked out of sight.”

Once again, the brilliance resides in the fact that it isn’t corpses settling to the bottom of the quicksand, but tales about corpses. The hasty reader might breeze through such a passage, still wondering what the book is really about, oblivious to the wit and descriptive genius already on display.

Anyone who lives in the country is likely to look up into the night sky, largely free of ambient light, and begin to rhapsodize, pondering the meaning of a constellation or the distance to the nearest star. Kooser takes that path only so far:

…following their lesson, I ache all over from being reminded of how small and insignificant I am, that life is as brief as a spark, etc. The universe is always so patronizing, like a high school guidance counselor, like Woodrow Wilson looking down on the world with twinkling glasses, pursing his lips, knowing his history.

Kooser revolts against the rather vacuous astonishment the night sky often produces. He points out—

Compared to the dreary life of any star, flaring up to collapse into nothing, my life is rich in happenings. For example, a bat like a small black rag has been fluttering back and forth through the yard light all evening, harvesting the stars of tiny moths, catching one tiny star in its teeth at each pass.

What Kooser is saying here is true. Anything that lives is both more complex and more interesting than a flaming ball of very distant gas, and Kooser proves that point again and again. Such are the “local wonders” of which the book is constructed.

But whether the book was actually “constructed” seems doubtful to me. There is no pattern to the subjects, other than the overriding and obvious one—spring, summer, fall, winter. And Kooser devotes quite a few sections, regardless of the seasons, to reminiscences about his childhood and his eccentric relatives. He says very little about his wife or his son Jeff, who will soon be leaving home, and to whom the book is dedicated. And it remains unclear whether any genuine farming is being done in the vicinity.

I suppose the book’s dramatic crescendos, such as they are, would be Kooser’s description of the bout of pneumonia he endured at the age of twenty, and when he was diagnosed with cancer a year or two before writing the book. He pulled through the first illness by pouring over a book that didn’t actually exist, though he thought it did at the time. In his hallucinatory state he made the whole thing up, including not only the story-line but the binding and the texture of the paper. On the strength of that experience—a remarkable feat of imagination—he decided to become a writer.

Since those early years Kooser has developed a good deal of sang froid, and it allows him to describe local workmen wantonly spraying chemicals up and down the country roads with equanimity. He doesn't approve of it, but he knows why it happens. More importantly, he draws our attention to life’s seemingly trivial details with calm assurance, confident that a telling detail and a touch of wit will keep us engaged. And it does. 

Kooser devotes more than a page, for example, to describing the dilapidated crèche scene—a family heirloom—that he sets up every Christmas. The hats of the two kings who have arrived at the manager “look a little like foil-wrapped kisses.” The two shepherds have taken off their hats as a sign of respect. “This courtesy has not occurred to the two kings, but they are foreigners,” he points out. One of the lambs, slung over the shoulder of a shepherd, has a very alert look on his face. He is so alert, in fact, that “the shepherd can soon expect a warm trickle down his back.” Joseph is down on both knees, sporting “the brown hair and beard of a man much younger than the Joseph of the Gospels, but perhaps the Gospels were wrong about this.” And so on.

In another passage, he describes a bug that appears night after night on the arm of the couch while he’s reading. Looking it up, he finds it’s called a leaf-footed bug. Kooser gets into the habit of hunting high and low for the bug each day. “I was attracted to his melancholy dreariness. All day he wandered up and down walls, across ceilings, like a cardiac patient walking a shopping mall. If sometimes I felt as if I were wasting my life, well I always had the leaf-footed bug to show me things could be worse.” That isn’t the end of the story, but I wouldn’t want to give too much away.

A friend gives him a bowl turned from a piece of Osage orange. “It takes a fine, high polish,” he writes, “and has a remarkable, mysterious feeling to it, as if it might be radioactive. Just holding it you feel as if you are clinging to something flying through the universe at the speed of light.” This fanciful comparison takes on added meaning when Kooser informs us that the father of the man who made the bowl is a five-star general and commander of the Skylab project.

There is no end to the delights awaiting anyone who takes up this concatenation of  random observations and striking (yet unforced) turns of phrase. Kooser has no staggering wisdom to share, but his world is shaped by kindness, a bemused respect for the sometimes bizarre creatures (human and otherwise) he meets up with at every turn of the path, and a gift for producing precisely the right homespun metaphor the bring it all home to us.


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