The Fourth of July, now receding in the rearview mirror, was the unofficial midpoint of summer, so we’re halfway through a season that might not be mourned too much when it’s gone.
Though long celebrated across the country as a carefree time, summer in this part of the world can also mean tortuous heat and the threat of hurricanes, hardly reasons to cheer. This year, in the shadow of a pandemic, the rest of America has been reminded of what Louisianans have known for generations — namely, that summer, so frequently heralded as a respite from responsibility, has its share of worries, too.
All of this came to mind a few afternoons ago when I opened my mail and saw that someone had sent me poems from Ted Kooser, former poet laureate of the United States.
The poems felt damp as I drew them from the envelope, and they carried the sharp scent of bleach. My correspondent, apparently worried about COVID-19, had obviously sprayed the poems with disinfectant before dropping them in the post.
We like to think of summer reading as a refuge from reality, but there I was, holding a sheaf of poems sanitized against the global contagion. It was yet another way in which concerns over a coronavirus have touched every corner of each private life.
I wondered what Kooser would have thought about the irony of his poems, so rich with the imagery of earth and sky, being chemically treated in the interest of public health.
Kooser indulges occasional irony in his work, but to his credit, he doesn’t wallow in it. He’s not afraid to declare honest emotions simply, a habit he probably learned growing up in the plainspoken Midwest.
In a nice recent poem called “A Letter,” Kooser writes about the early days of his parents’ marriage in Depression-era Iowa. The premise sounds grim, since we tend to think about those years of FDR and soup lines as a long stretch of gray. Surprisingly, though, the poem brims with color. Kooser recalls the small family apartment “across from a park where the town band / held its summer concerts, in a band-shell / rainbowed with rows of hidden, colored bulbs / that slowly shifted with the music’s mood.”
Kooser writes of the Depression as a time “when people had to wait for everything,” but what he seems to say, without being too obvious, is that his parents didn’t wait to be happy. In an uncertain time for the country and the world, they found solace in small things.
“A Letter” is included in “Red Stilts,” a new collection of Kooser’s poems due out later this year. In this troubled summer, I liked reading “A Letter” and its reminder not to wait passively for better times. Even in an anxious season, joy might be in front of us, if only we take the time to embrace it.