A horse-drawn carriage represents mid-Plains history to Ted Kooser, former U.S. poet laureate from Nebraska. Other poets also have delved into personal heritage deep between the bookends of the coasts.
Lawrence Matsuda writes about Japanese internment camps of World War II, with related images by Lawrence artist Roger Shimomura. And Gwen Nell Westerman remembers her grandmother’s Dakota Sioux teachings, while the Low German dialect is what poet Jane Hoogestraat retrieves from her attic trunk of the Great Plains immigrant past.
All these poets link their own experience to larger concerns of historic narratives. They love and mourn, like other poets, but they also document and humanize the past. All enlarge the reach of this venerable art form in its contemporary American incarnation.
“Splitting an Order”
Ted Kooser’s “Splitting an Order” is his first collection of poetry in 10 years. He has not rushed to monetize his national reputation since his last book, “Delights & Shadows,” won the Pulitzer Prize. Instead, he has perfected a new portfolio of verse.
This poet, a wise fool, sketches apparently simple vignettes.
The short poem “Grandfather” shows how Kooser needs few words to complete a universal parable with a handful of linked images:
“A breeze chased his pipe smoke/ out over the river, and later he followed, / carrying all of his tackle.” The time when many old men smoked pipes has passed, and the grandfather’s death is a reunion with the “river,” not a hospital vigil.
The most remarkable development for Kooser in this volume is the appearance of longer poems. Kooser often writes short sonnet-like poems, including those in “Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards” (2000), each indeed postcard-size.
In this book, however, Kooser presents a seven-page poem “Estate Sale.” Each section describes a used object — a bird feeder, a dog collar, an abandoned harp. The title suggests a typical farm auction, but instead the auctioneer is time.
The narrator lingers over the flotsam of a house abandoned within nature’s cycles. The poem ends with an image of sunlight on a “gilded harp,” the perfect light touch, free of sentimentality.
Some longer poems, prose poems and a lyrical essay add dimension to the theme of aging in “Split This Order.” Kooser ends with a comparison of his life to a “frozen barnyard.” He modestly concludes, “it seems that every day/ was rich with interest, both underfoot/ and just an inch or two ahead of that.”
Kooser shows how deeply important a few inches of one life can be.
“Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner: Poetry and Artwork Inspired by Japanese American Experiences”
Lawrence Matsuda, with artwork by Roger Shimomura (106 pages; CreateSpace; $21)
Lawrence Matsuda, a poet and educator, was born in Minidoka, Idaho, the site of a Japanese internment camp, during World War II. Roger Shimomura, a University of Kansas art professor emeritus, was a small child in Minidoka. The two collaborate in this handsome volume, “Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner,” which features two dozen of the artist’s images and about 40 poems.
Shimomura’s paintings about the Japanese-American experience are in the holdings of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian. His paintings draw on his grandmother’s diaries and other sources. His works narrate, in images, the effect of the war on Japanese-American people, as well as the war’s aftermath in popular culture. Matsuda interprets some of the paintings and adds his own experiences.
The painting “Saturday Matinee I — The Spy” is Shimomura’s grotesque portrait of the Chinese villain Fu Manchu. It exemplifies the stereotyped image of Asians in Hollywood media.
Matsuda’s poem based on the painting describes a Halloween night and “a white man dressed as a coolie: / Fu Manchu mustache, long braided queue.”
Matsuda seizes this moment to foreground his own perspective, “I disdainfully examine him.” This reversal of the narrative gaze gives voice to previously mute victims of ethnic stereotypes.
The book also follows reunions of internment camp survivors. In “Ukulele Band,” Matsuda writes, “I dream of strumming / away all my Minidokas.” Decades after the discriminatory imprisonment, the victims turn sorrow into remembrance.
This accessible book presents nuances of a dark chapter in American history. Shimomura’s works translate well to the printed page. Both the artist and the poet interpret harsh facts in personal ways, demonstrating how human dignity endures.
“Follow the Blackbirds: Poems”
Gwen Nell Westerman (72 pages, Michigan State University Press, $16.95)
Gwen Nell Westerman opens her first book, “Follow the Blackbirds: Poems,” with a story about her grandmother’s last words to her. The dying woman asks for water and then tells the granddaughter “to look for / blackbirds,” because “they always / go to water.”
The story becomes a larger parable, as it ends, “Don’t forget me” and “don’t forget the blackbirds.”
Westerman, a Dakota Sioux writer and professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, does not forget. She uses short lyrics to explain her heritage as well as long-lined verse and short prose piece.
“Henana Epe Kte,” which translates as “That Is All I Will Say,” is another poem about remembering. A man points out deer tracks and says, “look here,” and “a buck’s toes / are farther apart / than a doe’s.” The narrator responds, “I remember.”
This is the refrain again as the man says “listen here” and explains the “easiest way through / the woods” is a path already created by those who came before. Again, the narrator responds, “I remember.”
The narrator’s respect for the speaker is evident through her committed role as listener. The poem’s repetition, an instance of cultural preservation, shows esteem for orally transmitted knowledge.
Another remembrance in “Follow the Blackbirds” is the weaving of Dakota words into the verse. A glossary at the end for each poem clarifies any phrase not clear from the context.
Revitalization of indigenous American languages is one of the most pressing concerns for Native people and this book’s use of Dakota expands the literary range of the language. It enriches the American English traditions with inflections of the Dakota teachings.
Jane Hoogestraat (74 pages, BkMk Press, $13.95)
Jane Hoogestraat, a professor at Missouri State University, is winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, awarded to first collections by Kansas City’s BkMk Press.
In “Border States” she writes about the northern Plains, the same range as Westerman, from the perspective of a settler family.
Hoogestraat is, according to an interview with Marie Mayhugh of BkMk Press, a third-generation descendant of German immigrants to the Dakotas. Hoogestraat values “how the settlement history of places (and states) continues to have an indelible influence on present culture.”
Hoogestraat uses the past as one border, a transition to the present. She also locates geographical borders, including the Missouri-Kansas line and where Canada squats on our northernmost states. She places Missouri in the South in her poem, “Learning to Live in the Upland South.”
The War Between the States is the topic of several pieces, as history colors the Hoogestraat’s understanding of the region. She recalls the most fervent lines of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its “fiery gospel” and “burnished rows of steel.”
More than half the poems are set in the Dakotas. “What Prairie Flowers” shows the deep effect her mother’s wedding vase with its “years of tap-water rust, part of the glass now,” has on her. She hears a neighbor’s wind chines “like a breeze through farm windows,” as though she were back on the High Plains.
This poet creates a landscape beyond the reach of calenders. Hoogestraat’s first book, a fine addition to the canon of regional literary verse, shows craft with memorable images and balanced lines that read like good conversation.
Poet Denise Low of Lawrence is the author of “Melange Block.”