by Ted Kooser
I have been watching a Great Blue Heron
fish in the cattails, easing ahead
with the stealth of a lover composing a letter,
the hungry words looping and blue
as they coil and uncoil, as they kiss and sting.
Let’s say that he holds down an everyday job
in an office. His blue suit blends in.
Long days swim beneath the glass top
of his desk, each one alike. On the lip
of each morning a bubble trembles.
No one has seen him there, writing a letter
to a woman he loves. His pencil is poised
in the air like the beak of a bird.
He would spear the whole world if he could,
toss it and swallow it live.
The holidays have seen works of the current Poet Laureate lovingly thrust upon me. When Alan and Heidi visited, they gave me a copy of Kooser’s Weather Central, which begins with the poem above. It was a matter of minutes before I found several poems in it which I enjoyed and continue to enjoy. It was, in an oddly appropriate turn of events, a matter of just a few more minutes before I lost the book. I believe I left it in its wrapping on a table in a coffeshop in St. Paul. It was (and is) a brilliant gift, and I have since been able to replace the text.
Kooser, it is standard to mention, lives around Garland, Nebraska near Lincoln where he worked at the Lincoln Benefit Life Company and as an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska. Laura and I recently passed through Lincoln stopping at a Wendy’s and noting that Alan would have insisted on the King Kong Burger across the street on our way to Kearney, NE where Laura’s mom is taking care of Laura’s grandfather. Regional flavor carried the day as I gave Laura’s mom a recording of loons (state bird of Minnesota) and received Kooser’s Sure Signs over a spread featuring Nebraska wine (not a typo).
I expect to be posting several of Kooser’s poems in the coming year and suspect I may try to post at least one poem by each past Poet Laureate of the US as a sort of project this year–for example, Louise Bogan’s Night. Also, this post represents my attempt to begin actually saying something about the poems that I post here. So here goes.
In reading Kooser the last weeks, I (and certainly others before me) have been struck most often by his metaphors. It is certainly the most noticeable device in his work, and he makes strong use of it. When I was in grade school, I was instructed that a simile used the words “like” or “as”, but a metaphor was an actual equation of two things that were in fact not the same. If you wander lonely as a cloud, that’s a simile, it becomes a metaphor if you claim to actually be a lonely wandering cloud. I have since found that the term is used much more broadly and a great deal of imagery gets clumped under it. It is in this vague sense of the word that I claimed to be struck by Kooser’s metaphors, but what strikes me about the metaphor of Etude is the way that it shades into equating the heron and the letter writer.
By the end of the poem, we take it that the subject of the poem has been the furtive writer of love notes on company time. He is like the heron; he would spear the world with his beak of a pencil and swallow it live. It is surprising then to return to the start of the poem and find that in fact the office worker begins as an image for the heron. The heron is like the letter writer.
As the poem begins, the narrator is watching a heron fishing and finds the bird’s stealth like that of the imaginary correspondent. The motions of the bird’s hunting become the words on the page, both their look and their effect. The heron is concrete: there, being watched. The office worker is thoroughly hypothetical: “Let’s say that he holds down an everyday job”. The heron is blue and his office worker would thus wear a blue suit. Yet at this point the priority is already starting to shift a little. If a heron is like a man in a blue suit, a man in a blue suit is like a great blue heron. If days are like fish, fish are like days. Until finally the days do a very fishy thing, they carry a trembling bubble on their lip. Now the days are fish. They’ve done what I was told in grade school was the hallmark of metaphor, they’ve transformed into something they are not. At this moment, the man is no longer an image for the bird. The observed bird is now an image for the imagined man.
By the final stanza, it is the man that we are observing and no longer the bird. He does not seem enthusiastic about his work, he blends in so that he can spear the days that pass. We have become concerned with the nature of the love letters. They are his hunting. Oddly, by the end, they form an aggression toward the world.