In the comment stream to one of my previous posts, in which I wrote that William Stafford and Ted Kooser “bring a flush of fury to Ron Silliman’s bearded cheeks.” Silliman replied, “I can’t imagine ever feeling ‘fury’ at Kooser or Stafford. That’s like getting angry at cold oatmeal.” You’ll have to decide for yourself if “cold oatmeal” describes the following poems. They certainly don’t use jargon derived from linguistic theory, or make references to Heidegger or Wittgenstein, or work with words selected by random-text generating bots or by applying numerical sequences to famous quotations. Kooser’s poems seldom give off more than a moderate amount of rhetorical heat (76 degrees on a nearly windless, late summer day), but the temperance of their weather doesn’t keep them from being profound—at least to me—and sometimes even “open” in the way Adam Fieled deploys the term (see “Another Story” below).
IN A COUNTRY CEMETERY IN IOWA
—for James Hearst
Someone’s been up here nights,
and in a hurry,
breaking the headstones.
And someone else,
with a little time to spare,
has mended them;
some farmer, I’d say,
who knows his welding.
He’s stacked them up in
harnesses of iron,
old angle iron and strap,
taking a little extra time
to file the welds down smooth.
Just passing through, you’d say
it looks like foolishness.
“There’s never an end to dust
and dusting,” my aunt would say
as her rag, like a thunderhead,
scudded across the yellow oak
of her little house. There she lived
seventy years with a ball
of compulsion closed in her fist,
and an elbow that creaked and popped
like a branch in a storm. Now dust
is her hands and dust her heart.
There’s never an end to it.
In a country churchyard, two workmen
were digging a grave. it was summer,
but cool in the cedar-blue shade
of the white clapboard church where they labored.
Their picks did all of the talking.
Beyond them, a field of tall corn
glittered with heat, and above, a lone bird
rose on the air like an ash.
The grave grew slowly down
and out of the world, and the world rolled
under the work. Then the men stopped.
One stooped to scrape in the clay.
When he stood, light-headed,
swaying a little, he held in his hand
an old cowbell, covered with dirt
and packed with darkness.
He scraped out the earth with his knife.
The bell had no clapper. He shook it.
A meadowlark piped on a fence post.
In the distance, a feeder thunked.
He handed it across the grave
to the younger man, who held it in his hands
like a baby bird, then rang it tenderly.
A crow cawed in a cedar top.
He rang it again. On the highway,
a mile away, a semi trumpeted.
In the cornfield, an irrigation pump
thumped with a regular heartbeat.
He handed it back to the older man,
who set it aside. All afternoon,
they worked without a word between them.
At intervals each touched the empty bell.
from Weather Central