A Rainy Morning
A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lead again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.
Ted Kooser, from Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
At the end of the 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival I was asked via questionnaire which poets I would like to see booked by the festival in the future. Top of my list was Ted Kooser. In part this was due to Aldeburgh’s justified reputation for bringing US poets to the attention of UK audiences. I felt certain that readers of poets the festival had cultivated (Billy Collins, Thomas Lux, Kay Ryan, Sharon Olds) would warm instantly to Kooser’s limpid yet layered poems. I was tempted to recommend him as a kind of Midwestern Michael Laskey, but didn’t. I based this judgement on having read just one book of his, Delights and Shadows, which, in the way we are now fond of saying, does exactly what it says on the tin. If you don’t know his work, you are in for a treat. (Note to UK poetry publishers: please make his work available here as soon as possible.)
The book came into my hands in my local Oxfam bookshop for all of £2.99. I knew immediately that Kooser’s was a voice I could trust. The book seemed to want to open at poems contained in its second section, ‘The China Painters’, specifically around those concerning memories of his mother (‘Dishwater’, ‘Memory’, ‘Depression Glass’, ‘Zenith’, ‘Mother’). I noted the clarity of his diction, the way the poems proceeded at walking pace so as to leave nothing out, however small, savouring each detail in an even-handed tone that was conversational yet somehow reverent. Mostly written in single block paragraphs, the poems are models of control, not least of syntax: the sonnet-length ‘Dishwater’ comprises a single sentence, as do the 38 lines of ‘Memory’. Hidden in plain view, this is serious showmanship.
Reading backwards towards the beginning of the book, I came across ‘A Rainy Morning’. The poem tackles and transforms difficult subject matter via a conceit comparing the strokes of a woman’s hands on the wheels of her wheelchair to those of a concert pianist at her piano. In doing so, the poem risks objectifying the woman, or worse, ridiculing her. I think Kooser avoids this by emphasising the physical effort involved: the word ‘strike’/’strikes’ is repeated four times, an effort of ‘concentration’ he finds both ‘beautiful’ and ‘difficult’. He also offers the reader a degree of complicity in conjuring his unusual metaphor. He does not say ‘Pianists/ sometimes bend forward to strike the keys’, but ‘You have seen how pianists/ sometimes bend forward to strike the keys’. In helping him to visualise the woman, we become an onlooker, part of the poem’s act of recreation. The turned pages at the poem’s close, like those of the book the poem now belongs to, ‘expertly’ place the woman in her context and that of the imagined concert hall, reconnecting us to what we hold in our hands.