The American Midwest has been a place artists and writers have often wanted to escape. Archibald Higbie, the artist in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, loathed Spoon River because there was no culture there. In flight from his ordinary background, Higbie went to Rome and to Paris, to “breathe the air that the masters breathed.” He never succeeded, however, in rooting Spoon River out of his soul and his work, exhibited in Europe, only confused people. “Sometimes the face looks like Apollo’s, / At others it has a trace of Lincoln’s.”
The commonplace life Archibald Higbie, the failed artist, tried unsuccessfully to escape is the material of Ted Kooser’s poetry. His previous collections, Official Entry Blank, A Local Habitation and a Name, Not Coming to Be Barked At, and now Sure Signs, steadily reveal life in the American Midwest, as it is now and as it has been in the recent past, within the memories of his father and grandfather.
Kooser’s Midwest is a world of small towns and rural disintegration, of abandoned farmhouses, country cemeteries, churches converted into barns, and farm couples who have retired to “Houses at the Edge of Town.” It is a world of the old, the isolated and impaired, of emptiness, enigma, of life lived off to the side or in corners, as his titles imply: “Old Soldiers Home,” “Living Near the Rehabilitation Home,” “The Very Old,” “In the Corners of Fields.”
Kooser’s world is one in which things and people are forever being abandoned, left behind: ladders behind garages, a “white dish broken over the road.” It is a world of loss and bereavement, of galoshes in a closet “collapsing with grief.” The poem “Advice” interprets this world of loss:
We will always beleaving our loves like old stovesin abandoned apartments.Early in lifethere are signals of how it will be—we throw up the window one springand the window weights break from their ropesand fall deep in the wall.
“The Old Woman” (she could be Archibald Higbie’s mother) suggests much of the sense of isolation, abandonment, and bitterness found in these poems:
The old woman, asleep on her back,pulls up her knees and gives birthto an empty house. She kicks offthe quilt and sheet and rakes her shiftup over her hips, showing her sexto the photos of childrenarranged on the opposite wallwho, years before, turned theirmoonlit faces away.
Kooser, an underwriter in an insurance company in Lincoln, Nebraska, turns his face toward his place and people. Unlike Archibald Higbie, he escapes into the life of the Midwest to make the dull and everyday, the drab and the bleak shine as if by magic in his poems. In so doing, he illustrates how one can still discover America through literature. “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” Robert Frost wrote in “The Gift Outright,” condensing into a memorable line the notion that, unlike European countries, the United States was a nation, a political entity, before it was a land and people. The land, and life on the land, was “unstoried,...
(The entire section is 1512 words.)