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Splitting an Order
by Ted Kooser
53 poems / 87 pages / $17.00
Copper Canyon Press
Copyright 2017
Honors: Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Delights and Shadows, (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
Poet Laurette of the United States (2004-2006)
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

The moment I pulled Ted Kooser's Splitting an Order off the shelf I received a
Christmas-like feeling. The former U.S. Poet Laurette has gifted his readers
with poetic gems to be carefully unwrapped, savored, then placed gently to one
side before unwrapping the next present. Those familiar with Kooser's poetry
know that he writes in an easy, conversational style as pleasurable as having
coffee and bagels with a friend. Splitting the Order is that kind of poetic gift.

The book is divided into four sections which I arbitrarily identify as: I,
People; II, The Natural World; III, Everyday Things Magnified; IV, Tragedy.

In the title poem, Kooser transforms a mundane scene into one of loving

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,/maybe an ordinary cold
roast beef on whole wheat bread,/no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands
steady/by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

As if caught on camera we witness their love ritual:

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife/while she slowly unrolls her
napkin and places her spoon,/her knife, and her fork in their proper places,/
then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees/and meets his eyes
and holds out both old hands to him.

Changing Drivers reminds me of my own experience on a long drive. At the rest
stop, my wife and I emerge from our low-slung Dodge Intrepid unfolding like
seldom-played accordions, stiff as cardboard. Kooser's vivid imagery sends
summer's hot wind rifling through my shirt:

Their nondescript, late-model car/is pulled off on the windy shoulder,/its doors
flung wide, and the driver/gets out, gripping the roof with a hand/and lifting
himself just as the woman/ gets out of her side, both of them stiff,/both kneading
the small of their backs,

In his poem, The Man on the Dump, Wallace Stevens states, "The dump is full of
images." Similarly, Estate Sale, the longest poem in the volume at 24 stanzas,
makes detailed use of images to suggest that today's junk was once yesterday's
life-blood flowing through the veins of a real person:

The parts of a broken birdfeeder//An empty coffee can wrapped in aluminum foil//
A baseball with one of its seams/split wide//A windup wristwatch/with a cracked
leather band.// The red, webbed collar for a dog/bristled and frayed to a
foamy white

Although we hear the drumbeat of sadness, the poet does not leave us there:

And among these homely things,/an antique gilded harp,/its dusty strings like a
curtain/drawn over the silence,/stroked by fingers of light.

Kooser, a rural Nebraska native, is perfectly comfortable in the natural world.
So comfortable, in fact, that he converses with an opossum he surprises work-
ing on his nest in the barn. Kooser knows that the Opossum is a prehistoric
throwback whose only defense is to feign indifference:

In a brain no bigger/than a pumpkin seed, there's not much room/for fear, and
none for self-admiration,/so I have pushed aside some of my own fear/to admire

Throughout Splitting an Order, the poet writes in a free verse style employing
similes, metaphors, personification and other devices. He uses these with the
skill of a carpenter's hand, shaping, sanding, smoothing his work to perfection.
From, A Morning in Early Spring:

First light and under stars/our elm glides out of darkness/
spreading its feathers to shake out/the night.

In Closing the Windows, a poem about a rainstorm, his images evoke the poet's
childhood memories of storms and leaky windows, windows that someone had
to shut lest the storm hammer its way into the sacred precincts of an old house:

And then my father/in his summer pajamas/moving in silhouette, closing/the
windows//It was all so ordinary then/to see him at the foot of the bed,/closing
a squeaky window, now I understand that it was/not so ordinary after all.

The collection draws to a gentle close in Section IV with Small Rooms in Time,
a prose piece which describes with eloquent pathos, the sadness felt after a
murder takes place in the house where Kooser once lived with his family.

Splitting an Order is a visual and linguistic masterpiece that works for both
professional poets as well as for the reader who assumes that poetry is
beyond the reach of his or her understanding. Ted Kooser writes for both.


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