Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ted Kooser, Lights on a Ground of Darkness

Given the brief shelf life of books today, a book published in 2005 probably qualifies as “forgotten.” Ted Kooser, despite his credentials, may well be unknown by many here in the blogs. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry and former U.S. Poet Laureate, Lights on a Ground of Darkness is a short, tenderly written memoir of the writer’s family.

A book like this, full of family stories, always intrigues me, for I come from a similar ancestry (German Lutheran immigrants) but hardly a single story to commemorate it. There seemed to be a code of silence about the past among my forebears. Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention, which is just as likely.

Kooser’s memoir is structured mostly around his maternal grandfather, a farmer in Iowa, who operated a full-service gas station after his retirement in the Mississippi River town of Guttenberg. He was a man who lived into his 90s despite being a smoker and eating a diet that included sandwiches laced with lard. There’s also Kooser’s disabled uncle, Elvy, born with cerebral palsy and living at home.

Kooser has a poet’s eye for detail, and the stories and vignettes come to life with a vividness that’s sometimes startling. Moving back and forward in time, he anchors the flood of memories to a summer evening in 1949 at his grandfather’s house next to the gas station, when Kooser was ten years old. There family members gather for weekly pinochle.

Instructive for any writer is the way Kooser navigates the waters of emotion and sentiment. The dominance of hard-boiled and noir writing today makes distant company for a book that takes the greater risk of honoring everyday life and taking on themes like loss and the relentless erosion of time. The shadows and darkness in his writing are told of simply and not sensationalized.
Ted Kooser's hometown, Guttenberg, Iowa.
The title of the book originates in a quote from Scots poet Edwin Muir. “Our memories of a place, no matter how fond we were of it, are little more than a confusion of lights on a ground of darkness.” The bitter-sweetness of that observation about the way the past is remembered occurs over and again in this book. It is balanced against a motif of generations of irises, blooming anew each year.

The Dead about an evening gathering in James Joyce’s Dublin (and John Huston's wonderful film adaptation) has a similar ring of poignance. Beneath the everyday surface of lives being lived, there are loss and sadness that are sometimes crushing. Yet people persevere with home-grown humor and a quiet dignity.

It’s the tone that’s missing in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where the attitude is more like satire. And it’s what annoys me about that program. Keillor affects a warm regard for small-town midwestern life while making light of it—when he’s not making fun of it.

The achievement of Kooser is that he is able to honor the lives of very ordinary people. They are the ones left behind by the flight of their more gifted, moneyed, intelligent schoolmates to college and the City—the audiences who laugh knowingly at Prairie Home Companion. Not to mention the New Yorker readers who are amused by Roz Chast’s cartoons.

Kooser tells of their lives with an honesty that makes readers realize they are no different. Illness and age will find them, dreams will gather dust, and one day they will be no more. Only as memories of those who outlive them, for a while, and then not at all.

Lights on a Ground of Darkness is currently available at amazon (paper and kindle), AbeBooks, and alibris. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase. Thanks to my wife for putting this one under the tree for me this Christmas.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Maria Ampara Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don (1885)


  1. What a lovely review - it's so obvious how this book stood out to you, and in turn, it appeals to me too.

  2. What a coincidence--I just read this two nights ago. We were probably reading this obscure little book at the same time. Having grown up in little towns in North Dakota, Kooser's work has always spoken to me. I love his poetry and his shorty story in Prairie Schooner--"Going to the Dogs." (I don't think it's ever been anthologized but I photocopied when I was a college student at UND. Great writer.

    Peter Brandvold

  3. Veronica, thanks. It's a short book and has the easy feel of a casually told story.

    Peter, for fiction about small town North Dakota, there's Larry Woiwode's BEYOND THE BEDROOM WALL.

  4. I actually have heard of this book and that it's well worth the read. I'll have to look it up.

  5. The Keillor/Kooser contrast is perfect. I have never been able to listen to Keillor and have always wondered why. I think you have found the reason.

  6. Thank you for this. Peter Brandvold should also explore any of the North Dakota and upper Midwest novels of Larry Watson, all of them gems.