Wednesday, April 21, 2010

After Years --- Ted Kooser


Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer's retina
as he stood in the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.

---Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser's After Years

Some people prefer testing attitude with the question 'is the glass half empty or half full,' but I think the moments when we feel curious about our place in the vast, perpetually changing universe are an even better test. The only problem with this alternate gauge of perspective is that these moments are, by nature, spontaneous; a contrived moment of introspection will not tell us anything about ourselves. I don't need someone telling me I'm strange, or destined for greatness, or utterly purposeless; believe me, I will discover these things on my own. In fact, it's imperative that I discover them on my own, just as Ted Kooser does in his perfectly bittersweet poem After Years.

The speaker in Ted's poem stumbles into one of those moments where an internal pause button is pressed on the giant remote control inside of him. He sees a former lover "from a distance" and it literally stops him cold in his tracks. Ironically, while he is physically still, his mind hums along at warp speed through his own personal ecosystem created within his memories. Upon seeing her, Kooser sharply observes "the glittering face of a glacier / slid into the sea." One random near rendezvous seems responsible for, or at the very least connected to, the slow dissolution of the natural world. It's funny how the coming together of man and woman is linked to the separation of nature. Kooser takes this idea further: "An ancient oak / fell in the Cumberlands, holding only / a handful of leaves." At this point it appears the poem is all bitter and no sweet. I know what you're saying to yourself: It has to get better, right?

If you answered maybe to that preceding question then kudos to you my friend. There is no guarantee that this poem will turn sappy and earn itself a spot on the cork board above some lovestruck sophomore's desk. That uncertainty, which is embedded in the natural world and in our dormant human connections, is the central vein of Kooser's poem. It is precisely why "an old woman / scattering corn to her chickens / looked up for an instant," and we are not surprised by this. We accept the woman into the poem because this is one of those spontaneous moments of introspection brought on by a severe case of the what-could-have-beens. Now we may not be surprised by the old woman, but what she sees is rather interesting. Her view propels us into the final third of this poem and constructs an extended metaphor that brilliantly ties a knot with the poem's beginning.

"At the other side / of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times / the size of our own sun exploded / and vanished." Surely this is a big deal. A star sizably larger than our own sun, which is central to our existence, has not only exploded, but it completely vanished. Keep in mind that this colossal event was triggered by the chance encounter between Kooser and his former lover at the poem's start. Strangely enough, it is only a partial connection because it's not even acknowledged that the woman saw Ted. In fact, it's implied that she didn't notice him at all. For a star to blow to smithereens because of this near reunion, well, there must be some serious unrequited love and simmering passion going on. This is the point in the poem where we get to the test on a person's perspective. Let's push on to the poem's end: the star has exploded, "leaving a small green spot / on the astronomer's retina." So what does that have to do with testing to see if you're an optimist or a pessimist? Be patient, let's look at the final lines that follow and check out how Kooser brilliantly twists the poem back to its beginning roots, namely his long held love for the woman he views from a distance. The star's explosion, caused by Kooser's chance viewing of his former love, is viewed by an astronomer who Kooser tells us resides in "the great open dome / of my heart with no one to tell." Some (mostly snooty) people scoff at poem's that use hearts, either the word or the image. Overtly sentimental words or images should never be banned from poems, but they should be used carefully and creatively as Kooser does in this poem's ending. The heart—his heart—is the constant that ties this ending to the poem's other parts. All of these happenings, from the glaciers to the Cumberlands, have occurred within the world of his heart, contributing a depth that is shocking and powerful. Reading this poem, I identify a longing for a lost love that others might view as sad, but I see it is a moment that reminds us of the rare fate of being human.


nleblanc16trms said...

Thanks this really helped me understand the poem. I have to teach my class the true meaning of it. thank you so much

-14 years old

Julie Chen said...

This is a wonderful analysis! Thank you!