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
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
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
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
in Chicago, dragging a cart of sample cases, locked with silver chains.
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