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Ted Kooser, "Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps," University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska, 2002, 153 pages. 

Reviewed by Jon Hassler 

Not since Dylan Thomas, in my opinion, has a poet created such a delightful work of prose as Ted Kooser has done in this book about the southeastern corner of Nebraska where he lives. Here, for example, are three sentences from his preface: 

Contrary to what out-of-state tourists might tell you, Nebraska is not flat but slanted, like a long church-basement table with the legs at one end not perfectly snapped into place, not quite enough of a slant for the tuna-and-potato-chip casseroles to slide off into the Missouri River. The high end is closest to the Rockies, and the entire state is made up of gravel, sand and silt that ran off the front range over millions of years. Across this plain the Platte River meanders side to side, like a man who has lost a hubcap and is looking for it in the high grass on both sides of the road. 

You will notice that two of these three sentences are made up of extravagant and wonderful similes--the slant of land compared to a table, and the river compared to a man on the road--and this proportion holds true for the entire book--one third bare fact, two thirds a poet's highly entertaining descriptions of the eccentric relatives of his boyhood in Ames, Iowa, and the life he now leads on the sixty-odd acres he owns in the Bohemian Alps. These "alps," which are only about a hundred feet high, 

in the late 1870s began to be settled by Czech and German immigrants from that region of central Europe once known as Bohemia. . . . They're made up of silty clay and gravelly glacial till with small red boulders that look like uncooked pot roasts. 

As its title indicates, the book is divided into four parts according to the seasons, beginning with spring: 

Fat slides of snow plop from the wet tin roofs of turkey sheds and it's suddenly spring, the farmyard air in compartments of warm and cold, blue in the shadows and yellow over the pooled wheel ruts in the sunny pigpens. 

Autumn begins this way: 

The first official morning of autumn, sunny, cool and breezy, the leaves just beginning to fall. The cottonwoods that lean above our county road have started to pitch their gold coins into the beds of passing pickups, but the elms and hackberries and oaks stubbornly cling to fistfuls of green. 

In early winter Kooser is out walking his country road when he sees a starling approach on foot. The bird looks out of place, 

wearing an iridescent navy suit with spots of mud from a passing car, a purple silk neck scarf, and far too much oil in his hair. I have seen him before, walking the concourse at O'Hare in Chicago, dragging a cart of sample cases, locked with silver chains. 

"When God wishes to rejoice the heart of a poor man, He makes him lose his donkey and find it again." With this Czech proverb the poet begins the penultimate and most serious part of the book: 

In the summer of 1998, I lost the donkey upon which I had ridden for many years, the ability to write. It was something that had given meaning to my life for forty years, and it was gone. 

The cause of this devastating development was a seige of cancer of the tongue, which, by means of surgery and radiation, he survived. Then in the final section he gets movingly philosophical, describing life as 

a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger trains. . . . There is a windy perilous passage between each car and the next. . . . For you there may be the dangerous passage of puberty, the wind hot and wild in your hair, followed by marriage, . . . then rhe rushing warm air of the birth of your first child,and then so soon it seems, a door slams shut behind you, and you find yourself out in the cold where you learn that the first of your parents has died. 

As you can see, this is a very quotable book. I guess I'd better stop this review before I quote every page.

 

 

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