The Homespun Sophisticate
Kooser's Latest is More than a "Field Book"
By Ted Kooser
University of Nebraska Press
Review by Alan Limnis
Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former U.S. poet laureate, has filled scores of workbooks. The Wheeling Year offers a sequence of contemplative prose observations about nature, place, and time arranged according to the calendar year.
So this isn’t something merely ceremonial, this is a book to be responded to—and yet it’s tricky to make demands of Kooser. His writing cannot be discussed without using the words Nebraska, spare, and elegiac. They appear in almost every review of his work, and apply to The Wheeling Year, as well. If you haven’t read Kooser, you should know that the word homespun also appears in discussions of his work.
The Wheeling Year is divided into twelve sections, each titled after a month, each containing between a dozen and two dozen short prose pieces. Take, for instance, this piece from the “April” section:
The twenty-five-cent photo booth has disappeared, poof, along with the fine-and-dimes they’d found a corner in, as with the boys and girls who stepped inside and drew the curtain, light as time, across their grins and mischief. Such fun it was to step out into the glaring light of the rest of your life, carrying your face as it had been framed for just that instant, your smile like a joke, the really good joke of a kisser as young as it would ever be again, frozen in black and white and damp with chemicals, fixed in a cold tin frame.
How you feel about the empty space after that previous sentence probably determines how you will feel about The Wheeling Year. Do you admire the craft of the nicely drawn, the writer’s eye for the selection of redolent images? Then The Wheeling Year is for you. But for those of you who, after that sentence, thought, “And...?”—well, that's it. There is a piece in the book about PBS painting icon Bob Ross. The piece is not a McSweeney’s-esque goof on Ross, it is not a critical mulling-over of how our culture created an “item” called “Bob Ross,” it is neither a celebration of Bob Ross nor a meta-celebration of our history of celebrating Bob Ross. “Come back, keep coming back, Bob Ross. We need to know that everything is happy where it is, and that we too might put it there,” the piece ends. Kooser is here to praise life, not to bury it. Well, these are elegiac pieces, so I guess he’s here to bury it, too. Kooser is here to praise life and bury it respectfully, and not to gossip about the rumors or try to be clever in the eulogy. People enjoyed Bob Ross. It would be nice if he were still around. End.
Though Kooser is undeniably talented at the observational, there are occasional false notes. A piece in the “May” section begins “Oh, melancholy, how poor I would be without you drawing my attention to this or that.” The formality of the address there gave me pause. I’m not sure people actually mired in melancholy begin their address to it with that anglophilic “Oh.” This is the note one picks up occasionally in Kooser—the sense that all this plainspokenness is sometimes the work of someone putting on a persona. That it is, in other words, crafted. It fits the project, though. That subtitle, “A Poet’s Field Book,” suggests a plainness of intent, a kind of mere transcription of some casual observations. Please. The Wheeling Year is more sophisticated than that.
Alan Limnis is a staff writer. In the summer issue he reviewed Mina Loy's Insel.