Books and Beyond

A few months ago, Ted Kooser (poet laureate of the United States 2004-2006) chose a poem by Tim Nolan to print for Poetry Corner in The Independent. I cut this poem from the paper, saved it, and then checked out his collection “And Then,” c 2012, and bought “The Field,” c 2016. Both books are published by New Rivers Press. “And Then” is available in the Plum Creek Library System.

The title of the Nolan poem Ted Kooser chose is “My Dead,” from “The Field.” I loved the poem, even though I wish it had a different title. I find the poem to be uplifting about his loved ones who have passed on. I find it to be soothing: he takes us through his experiences seeing and hearing his mother and father, grandparents, cat and others. It ends with these lines:

Strange how quiet they are with their presence

So humble in the low song they sing

Not expecting that anyone will listen

Tim Nolan listens, and I listen.

I chose the collection “And Then” to read first. I wonder if this happens to you when you read a poem. It makes me stop and enter another world where the rules and the ordinary expectations of prose don’t apply.

I’ll start with Nolan’s poem “Oriental Rug,” which is about an old oriental rug that is still in his garage. He has so many memories associated with this rug that has a red background. It was his grandmother’s, bought in 1924, and he walked on it as a child. Now he drives his car on the rug. He confronts reality: this rug will eventually be thrown away. But that’s not the end of the poem and that’s not the end of his grandmother. . .

the rug will throw

itself out — or it will simply

fly away– just as she did —

(p. 87)

These lines hint at Nolan’s willingness to face the death of a loved one with a light feeling. Does flying away ever have a bad connotation? Not to me. Not in nature. Birds fly, Bumblebees fly. Butterflies fly. Leaves on bushes and trees fly.

Nolan’s poem about a rug took my breath away. Forty years ago I wrote a poem about a rug, titled “Finding Reasons,” published in Red Cedar Review (1976). Here is the last stanza:

A rug is a small thing,

what you put down

for a small reason, then

it becomes something

you can’t do without.

It’s where people go

on their way to say good-bye.

Previous lines ask “Did we leave more than footprints on this rug?” Yes, we did.

So you can see why I went into the world Tim Nolan writes about. Now I’ll go to another of Nolan’s poems, “The Sadness of Eisenhower.” You may recall that in March when I reviewed the book about presidents I said that Dwight Eisenhower was the first U.S. president in my consciousness as I grew up. This 12-line poem does not have Eisenhower’s name in it, just the title does. The first line refers to the day on Jan. 20, 1961, when he left the presidency and John F. Kennedy took over, a president from a different party than Eisenhower. But why was Eisenhower sad?

— he seemed sad

as if he had failed — maybe

he had failed — at what? I didn’t know.

I was too young to know anything —

the black and white of it — the bright sun —

the sharp cold — it was time for him to go.

(p. 33)

As you know, Eisenhower has stayed in my mind a long time, too. I was 18 when he stepped away from being president. I can still listen to Dwight David Eisenhower.

The epigraphs Nolan used in “And Then” kept me in his world where you can fly. The first one is by Hafiz, a Persian poet of the 14th century. Here I remembered that I had read poems by Hafiz in a collection by Robert Bly titled “The Winged Energy of Delight,” c 2004. I found the book on our shelves and sure enough several poems by Hafiz (spelled Hafez in Bly’s collection) are in the book. Here are lines that will stay with me (I’ve posted them on the refrigerator):

I say to the bird: As long as Spring

Baptizes the grass, the immense scarlet blossoms

Will continue to sway over your head.

(p. 383)

A repeating line in this poem is

do not sink into sadness.

I come back to Tim Nolan’s poem “My Dead” in Ted Kooser’s column. The Hafiz poem that I just quoted is titled “Sitting in the Grief House.” Both poets tell us that what in an ordinary world takes us only to sadness, in the complete world raises us to fly.