"The quietest magnificent book I've ever read," says author Jim Harrison on the cover of Ted Kooser's Local Wonders. Cross Annie Dillard's incisive observations with Erma Bombeck's outrageous knack for finding humor at the kitchen table, tone it down, round off the edges and you have something akin to Kooser's sweet cadence of story telling.
In a place in southeastern Nebraska close to Lincoln and not far from Omaha lie the Bohemian Alps, a tongue in cheek name for the low rolling hills in the dusty prairie, as well a tribute to the early Czech and German immigrants who settled Nebraska. Ted Kooser, two term Poet Laureate of America, artist and former insurance salesman, was born in Iowa and settled in Garland, Nebraska after retirement. The town of Garland is located in the Bohemian Alps.
Local Wonders is an account of Kooser's unhurried life in Garland mixed in with memories of the past and reflections on the future. Divided into four seasons with the Bohemian Alps as the backdrop, the book takes us through his life and places that have the veneer of placid ordinariness. With gentle humor and quiet deftness Kooser reveals excitement, anxieties, love, loss, happiness and disappointments amidst them - the warp and weft in the fabric of any life. In doing so, he utilizes "wolf vision," the ability to detect the slightest change in one's surroundings and life's rhythm. Kooser doesn't make any earthshaking observations but he has a keen sense of what matters. He manages to find breathtaking beauty in nearby landscapes, dignity in the uneventful lives of neighbors and forgotten history at abandoned mines and crossroads. Nothing is too large or too insignificant for Kooser's attention. The vast prairies, a trapped insect, the quirky personalities of domestic and wild animals, a mice and spider infested barn and an outhouse that needs some care in using; they are all fodder for Kooser's ruminations and satisfaction. But with an artist's eye, he sees beyond the obvious. In the supple limbs and practiced strut of a shimmering aqua clad teenage rural drum majorette, he catches a flash of the tired middle aged farm wife. In his parents' peaceful midwestern lives, he remembers the anxiety of post depression era immigrants. In the death of a bachelor uncle he notes the parallels with the dignified resignation of a dying elephant.
A Czech saying adorns the fly leaf of Local Wonders. It reads: "When God wishes to rejoice the life of a poor man, he makes him lose his donkey and find it again." At the end of the book we discover how Kooser lost his donkey and then rejoiced in finding it again. The donkey, he tells us is his will and ability to write poetry. But the most striking thing in the book is the author's serene joy in discovering new facets of familiar surroundings. He describes it in the following paragraph.
The Joslyn Museum in Omaha owns a 1948 painting by George Ault called August Night at Russsell's Corners, portraying two old buildings and a section of road illuminated by a single hanging light. One side of a red building to the left is lighted, one side of a white building to the right. The road curves slightly, as indicated by a painted center line, and abruptly vanishes into the darkness. Recently I was asked to submit a poem about a favorite picture for a book and I chose this painting. It seems to have a simple premise: old buildings that in daylight would be so familiar that a person living in Russell’s Corners wouldn’t even notice them, become exotic and mysterious in the light from a commonplace bulb. Ault made four paintings of this same midnight crossroads, each from a slightly different angle, some showing a third building. But their effect upon me is identical. I can feel my will joining with that of the feeble light in its struggle to push back the darkness, darkness that has already begun to affect and alter the familiar, making it strange and exciting. I wrote:
If you can awaken
inside the familiar
and discover it new
you need never
(A glimpse of Russell's Corners here)
My enjoyment of Kooser's book was enhanced by my familiarity with the region of Nebraska described in it. Writing the review also provides an opportunity to post a 1995 painting of mine here - A Tribute to Nebraska.
(click to enlarge)