Sure Signs

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1512

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 entire section contains 1512 words.)

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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, artless, unenhanced.” American literature, however, in region after region, has transformed forbidding physical terrain, bereft of history, memory, and tradition—mere locality—into place, a word which assumes human involvement and participation, a locality deeply felt and experienced. Kooser’s poems contribute to this ongoing discovery of America. They call to mind T. S. Eliot’s observation, in “Little Gidding,” that the last part of the earth we discover is that which we have known from the beginning; that the goal of our exploration is to “arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”

Kooser’s poems are explorations and arrivals that transform locality into place. The landscape and objects on it assume the features and qualities of people, while people come to resemble the landscape. In “Self-Portrait at Thirty-Nine” the speaker’s face, observed in a barber shop mirror, resembles the Midwestern rural landscape: “There’s a grin lost somewhere / in the folds of the face, with a fence / of old teeth, broken and leaning. ...” Conversely, the “Snow Fence” seems to be a trapper or prospector—or perhaps a farm animal—as it “takes the cold trail / north; no meat / on its ribs, / but neither has it / much to carry.” In “A Drive in the Country,” snowdrifts on the roadside “lie in the grass like old men / asleep in their coats.” It is trees that resemble old men in “Walking Beside a Creek”: “... the trees, their coats / thrown open like drunken men, / the lifeblood thudding / in their tight, wet boots.” In “So This Is Nebraska,” barns are “those dear old ladies ... / their little windows / dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs.” An abandoned truck appears to be a farmer resting from labor: “... top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees, / a pickup kicks its fenders off / and settles back to read the clouds.” The wind in “In an Old Apple Orchard” is an old man who has “gone off / late in the day / toward the town, and comes back / slow in the morning, / reeling with bees.” In “Late September,” ladders behind garages, by haystacks and barns are “tough old / day laborers, seasoned and wheezy, / drunk on the weather, / sleeping outside with the crickets.” Cedars in a country cemetery are “stringy and tough as maiden aunts, / taking the little gusts of wind / in their aprons like sheaves of wheat.”

Sometimes through telling detail that achieves a surrealistic effect, Kooser renders the essence of life on the plains of Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, the Dakotas. In “Late Nights in Minnesota,” he shows

... a bulb burning cold in the jail,and high in one house,a five-battery flashlightpulling an old woman downstairs to the toiletamong the red eyes of her cats.

(The poem does for the Midwest what Wallace Stevens’ (who also combined the worlds of insurance and poetry) “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” does for New England. Compare Stevens’

The houses are hauntedby white night-gowns.Only, here and there, an old sailor,drunk and asleep in his boots,Catches tigersIn red weather.)

The abandoned pickup in “So This Is Nebraska” suggests the feeling of the place: “... you feel like letting / your tires go flat, like letting mice / build a nest in your muffler, like being / no more than a truck in the weeds.” “A Hot Night in Wheat Country” condenses history, culture, and tradition in a view from an open upstairs window: “a great white plain stretches away—/ the naked Methodists / lying on top of their bedding. / The moon covers her eyes with a cloud.” In “A Place in Kansas” a ship’s anchor incised over the door of an abandoned stone house in a wheatfield suggests something mysterious, enigmatic: “There was no one to ask / what the anchor was doing in Kansas, / no water for miles. / Not a single white sail of meaning / broke the horizon... . It’s like that in Kansas, forever.”

Two things detract from the pleasure of these poems. Titles are unnecessarily repeated in the first lines of several poems. One reads, for instance, “At the Bus Stop Next to the Funeral Home,” and then reads the title again as the first line. Similar repetitions occur in “After My Grandmother’s Funeral,” “The Very Old,” “The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise,” and “There Is Always a Little Wind.”

Repetition of another kind also calls attention to itself. Many of the poems seem to be versions of one another, as is the case with “A Widow” and “The Widow Lester,” or with “In a Country Cemetery in Iowa” and “There Is Always a Little Wind.” Sometimes one has the feeling that two poems might be parts of a longer poem (“Sitting All Evening Alone in the Kitchen,” “Highway 30”). Certain poems might better have been presented as parts of a sequence (“An Empty Place,” “Shooting a Farmhouse,” “North of Alliance,” “Grandfather,” “Abandoned Farmhouse”).

These repetitions, however, are minor matters detracting only slightly from the reader’s enjoyment. The lucid accessibility of these poems makes it evident that in all really important ways, Kooser cares for the reader, whom he imagines in the opening poem. His ideal reader is a beautiful woman who, forced to choose between having her raincoat cleaned and buying his poems, decides to have the coat cleaned! One thinks of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “... there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Yet, Kooser’s poems meet the difficult criterion Moore lays down in subsequent lines: “... one discovers ... after all, a place for the genuine.”

Sure Signs belongs with Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the poems of Frost and William Carlos Williams, with Jesse Stuart’s Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow and Millen Brand’s Local Lives—poems dealing not with America the abstraction but with what is really there. Sure Signs belongs to that body of poetry which reveals the continental United States as contiguous geographical areas and overlapping cultural regions with histories, traditions, and memories that render political boundaries such as states relatively insignificant.

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