A Few Old Papers

Ted Kooser (b. 1939 –

Year’s End

by Ted Kooser

Now the seasons are closing their files
on each of us, the heavy drawers
full of certificates rolling back
into the tree trunks, a few old papers
flocking away. Someone we loved
has fallen from our thoughts,
making a little, glittering splash
like a bicycle pushed by a breeze.
Otherwise, not much has happened;
we fell in love again, finding
that one red feather on the wind.

The past few years I have taken the month of January to do a deeper dive into one poet, an attempt to go beyond an understanding of a few poems and to read not only their broader canon of work, but  also their circle of influencers.   This coming January I have been planning showcasing Robert Lowell, but the closer I get to January and the more I read of Lowell the more ambivalent I become. Lowell is a little too slick, too academic, too privileged.  As much as I try to find things I like about Lowell, given the vast amount of sonnets the man wrote, in the end I just don’t like his poetry very much.   Poetry is supposed to be enjoyable for the reader, not a beat down drubbing that leaves you bored and mystified. 

Kooser, in my mind, is the anti-Lowell as a poet in some ways, but if Lowell hadn’t existed would Kooser as a poet exist?  The same could be said of Pound and others.  What I like about Kooser is his poems give me energy, whereas too many Lowell’s seems to take energy out.  Kooser, for me, embodies the best of mid-western poetry, a relatively straight forward poetic vision that lets the reader inside his world, a world that is  recognizable, not mamby-pamby, but not so stark as to scare us off.  Kooser, like his poetry, has aged well. 


by Karen Volkman

Say sad. Say sun’s a semblance of a bled
blanched intransigence, collecting rue
in ray-stains. Smirching pages. Takes its cue
from sateless stamens, flanging. Florid head

got no worries, waitless. Say you do. Say
photosynthesis. Light, water, airy bread.
What eats its source, its orbit? Something bad:
some plural petal that will not root or ray.

Sow stray. Salt night for saving, dreaming clay
for heap, for hefting. Originary ash
for stall and stilling. Say it will, it said.

Corolla corona, bliss-bane—delay
surge and sediment. Say instrument and gash
and ruminant remnant. Rex the ruse. Be dead.

How Can A Body Withstand This?


Karen Volkman

The Thing Is

by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.


Sonnet [Laughing below, the unimagined room]

by Karen Volkman

Laughing below, the unimagined room
in unimagined mouths, a turning mood
speaking itself the way a fulling should
overspilling into something’s dome,

some moment’s edging over into bloom.
What is a happening but conscious cloud
seeking its edge in a wound or word
pellucidity describing term

as boundary, body, violated bourne
no sounding center, circumscription turn.
Mother of mirrors, angel of the acts,

do all the sighing breathing clicking wilds
summon the same blue breadth the sense subtracts,
the star suborning in its ruptured fields.

Drowns and Booms and Vowels


Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]

by Karen Volkman (b. 1967)

Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea

ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,

a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare

bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels. I will not.

It is a pleasure to see contemporary writers skillfully exploring the sonnet form.  Karen Volkman is a master at taking the sonnet structure and like e. e. cummings, mold it to her will and keep it fresh and exciting.  I like her playful bending of words, in particular the turning the word vowel into a verb at the end of this poem. It rather struck me that maybe I had never really considered what underlays the term.  So I looked it up.  A vowel is a speech sound that is produced by comparatively open configuration of the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction and is a unit of the sound system of a language that forms the nucleus of a syllable. It is therefore in speech, by its very definition a verb and action. How brilliant an insight by Volkman, that in this case her blue, where nothing was ever as it claimed to be, forms the nucleus of this snapshot of her creativity.

I have read this poem over 10 times in the past couple of months. Each time I read it, it has this uncanny ability for me to think about something completely different. Volkman’s flow of words do not create a specific image or emotion in my mind, rather its like a shimmer, the suggestion of a skin, that allows my mood at the moment to interpret or enjoy spontaneously. I am in awe of writers that have that ability to share something so intimate as their own inner life, without infringing on our own ability to let our imaginations fly unfettered.

Volkman shared a sliver of insight into her writing on Poetry Out Loud:

“I believe one of the jobs of poetry is to allow readers to discover different and more complex ways of engaging experience, including the experience of their own inner lives, partly by surprising them into developing new modes of response in their reading, new freedoms.”  Karen Volkman

Volkman and I are contemporaries at least in terms of age.   She would have been even younger than I when the golden age of space exploration and maned space missions were the grand spectacles of awe on our black and white televisions. Time magazine was the weekly vehicle by which the amazing colors of space streamed into my living room, with pictures freshly minted from astronauts circling the earth, sending back photos of our blue egg.

I have no idea if Volkman sees the ying and yang between the two poems I have shared from her work.   The second explores  in my mind the sun around which the earth spins, and which is the source of energy that fuels all life on this planet. I particularly like her imagery that the sun “wakes the waters” and at the end, is the “blue begun.”  In Volkman’s mind, none of what I see in her writing may exist, but she is the most beneficent of artists to not impose too much on the mind of her readers that we cannot create within her sonnet’s structure our own mystery.

It is hard sometimes to wrap ones head around the seemingly daily disasters, whether geopolitical or environmental or just good old-fashioned crazy people, that seem to dominate the daily news cycle. Poetry, for me, is an invitation to contemplation, meditation, a welcoming to experience a quieter place, where the mind can remind itself, that life on this planet is special.

[She goes, she is, she wakes the waters]

by Karen Volkman

She goes, she is, she wakes the waters
primed in their wave-form, a flux of urge
struck in oneness, the solid surge
seeking completion, and strikes and shatters

and is its fragments, distinction’s daughters
and now, unholding, the cleave and merge
the hew and fusing, plundering the verge
and substance is the scheme it scatters

and what it numbers in substantial sun.
Her hands hold many or her hands hold none.
And diving the salt will kiss a convex eye

and be salt fact and be the bodied sky
and that gray weight is both or beggared one,
a dead dimensional, or blue begun.

Karen Volkman, “[She goes, she is, she wakes the waters]” from Nomina. Copyright © 2008 by Karen Volkman