Ted Kooser spent 35 years working as a life insurance executive and in retirement lives in rural Nebraska and teaches poetry and essay writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He served two terms as U. S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006), and during his second term was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his 2004 book, Delights & Shadows, published by Copper Canyon Press.
His most recent books have been two stories for children, Bag in the Wind and House Held Up By Trees. Three new books are forthcoming in 2014: The Wheeling Year, a book of prose vignettes (University of Nebraska Press); Splitting an Order, a collection of poems (Copper Canyon); and The Bell in the Bridge, a children’s story (Candlewick Press).
FLYING AT NIGHT
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
A FROZEN STREAM
This snake has gone on,
all muscle and glitter,
into the woods,
a few leaves clinging,
red, yellow, and brown.
Oh, how he sparkled!
The roots of the old trees
gleamed as he passed.
Now there is nothing
to see; an old skin
caught in the bushes,
bleached and flaking,
a few sharp stones
already poking through.
Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talk, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.
The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.
West of Omaha the freshly plowed fields
steam in the night like lakes.
The smell of the earth floods over the roads.
The field mice are moving their nests
to the higher ground of fence rows,
the old among them crying out to the owls
to take them all. The paths in the grass
are loud with the squeak of their carts.
They keep their lanterns covered.
THE WIDOW LESTER
I was too old to be married,
but nobody told me.
I guess they didn’t care enough.
How it had hurt, though, catching bouquets
all those years!
Then I met Ivan, and kept him,
and never knew love.
How his feet stunk in the bed sheets!
I could have told him to wash,
but I wanted to hold that stink against him.
The day he dropped dead in the field,
I was watching.
I was hanging up sheets in the yard,
and I finished.
THERE IS ALWAYS A LITTLE WIND
There is always a little wind
in a country cemetery,
even on days when the air stands
still as a barn in the fields.
You can see the old cedars,
stringy and tough as maiden aunts,
taking the little gusts of wind
in their aprons like sheaves of wheat,
and hear above you the warm
and regular sweep of wheat being cut
and gathered, the wagons creaking,
the young men breathing at their work.
A JAR OF BUTTONS
This is a core sample
from the floor of the Sea of Mending,
a cylinder packed with shells
that over many years
sank through fathoms of shirts—
pearl buttons, blue buttons—
and settled together
beneath waves of perseverance,
an ocean upon which
generations of women set forth,
under the sails of gingham curtains,
and, seated side by side
on decks sometimes salted by tears,
made small but important repairs.
A DEATH AT THE OFFICE
The news goes desk to desk
like a memo: Initial
and pass on. Each of us marks
Surprised or Sorry.
The management came early
and buried her nameplate
deep in her desk. They have boxed up
the Midol and Lip-Ice,
the snapshots from home,
wherever it was—nephews
and nieces, a strange, blurred cat
with fiery, flashbulb eyes
as if it grieved. But who grieves here?
We have her ballpoints back,
her bud vase. One of us tears
the scribbles from her calendar.
THE FAN IN THE WINDOW
It is September, and a cool breeze
from somewhere ahead is turning the blades;
night, and the slow flash of the fan
the last light between us and the darkness.
Dust has begun to collect on the blades,
haymaker’s dust from distant fields,
dust riding to town on the night-black wings
of the crows, a thin frost of dust
which clings to the earth as it spins.
The fan has brought us through,
its shiny blades like the screw of a ship
that has pushed its way through summer—
cut flowers awash in its wake,
the stagnant Sargasso Sea of July
far behind us. For the moment, we rest,
we lie in the dark hull of the house,
we rock in the troughs off the shore
of October, the engine cooling,
the fan blades so lazily turning, but burning.
WALKING ON TIPTOE
Long ago we quit lifting our heels
like the others—horse, dog, and tiger—
though we thrill to their speed
as they flee. Even the mouse
bearing the great weight of a nugget
of dog food is enviably graceful.
There is little spring to our walk,
we are so burdened with responsibility,
all of the disciplinary actions
that have fallen to us, the punishments,
the killings, and all with our feet
bound stiff in the skins of the conquered.
But sometimes, in the early hours,
we can feel what it must have been like
to be one of theme, up on our toes,
stealing past doors where others are sleeping,
and suddenly able to see in the dark.
A HAPPY BIRTHDAY
This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.