Splitting an Order
ONE OF THE POEMS THAT STAYS WITH ME the most from Splitting an Order, Ted Kooser’s first new collection in ten years, is “Those Summer Evenings,” his take on Robert Hayden’s classic and much-anthologized “Those Winter Sundays.” In his characteristically laconic but nonetheless musical voice, Kooser allows the poem to unspool as a single sentence, beginning like this:
My father would, with a little squeak
and a shudder in the water pipes,
turn on the garden hose, and sprinkle
the honeysuckle bushes clipped
to window height . . .
His father sprayed the bushes, he goes on to say, so the night breeze might “brush across the honeysuckle,/sweet and wet, and keep us cool.” And the fact that the bushes were “clipped/to window height” suggests how much forethought went into this small act. “Those Summer Evenings” is not a flashy poem, seeking only, as it does, to capture a fleeting moment of kindness offered by a father to his children without any of the regret or grief that often suffuses poems about family. “At Arby’s, at Noon,” another of my favorites, is unassuming as well, yet it is also one of the riskiest poems in the collection, not only because its setting is a roast beef restaurant chain (perhaps a first for poetry), but also because Kooser speaks in a difficult-to-pull-off collective voice (“Some of us were arriving, hungry, impatient . . . “). This welcoming perspective, however, allows us to accompany the speaker as the poem unfolds (again as a single sentence) and feel that we are there with him as the “pretty young woman, blind” kisses a badly scarred man and startles the lunch crowd into sudden attention:
. . . and though their kiss was brief
and askew and awkwardly pursed
we all received it with a kind of
wonder and kept it on our lips
through the afternoon.