Review of The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book by Ted Kooser

University of Nebraska Press, 2014

by James Crews

A book of hours was a daily devotional text popular with Christians in the Middle Ages. Each manuscript was written in the vernacular of the period and listed the appropriate prayers for specific times of the day, days of the week and months of the year, making it an indispensable guide for the devout. The Wheeling Year by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, Ted Kooser, is not a religious book per se, but I have come to see it as my own (albeit secular and literary) book of hours, something to pull out and read through anytime I feel my attention slipping away from the world I mean to see more clearly. Kooser calls The Wheeling Year “a poet’s field book,” and points out in his preface that these prose pieces have been culled from sixty years of journal keeping and note-taking. Arranged by the months of the year, the plain-spoken and sometimes playful entries are also devotional in the sense that each one focuses intensely on a single moment, object or scene, and can train us all to hone a similar focus on our everyday lives, as Kooser does here, in his first entry for February:

Four in the morning, cold and still but for the buzz of my yard light as it talks to the one up the hill at my neighbor’s. Mine says it feels the earth spinning it out to the end of its post, like a drop of light that might at any instant shake off into the stars, but my neighbor’s says that’s nonsense, the typical thing you can expect from a poet’s lamp: Nothing on earth can feel that centrifugal force . . .

These prose pieces (one is tempted to call them “prose poems“) range in tone from the whimsical (“If a flower can pray . . .”) to the profound (“This night is a cold, deep lake . . .”), and any reader looking to see ordinary things with a freshness only careful words like these can bring to light, will appreciate his observations. Though some will note similarities between The Wheeling Year and Kooser’s previous collection of prose, the lyrical memoir, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, this book is a decidedly different project, assembling its stories out of short, fleeting glimpses that can nonetheless make us pause and smile with delight:

Our little pond is a mirror with dirty dust-rag swirls of duckweed. Our flag snaps like a whip by the gravel road, where the rose hips redden under the mailbox, and milkweed pods open their praying hands. In the distance, the dotty old grain trucks, dressed in pink and blue, come waddling and whimpering, peeing their pants, from behind barns, for their once-a-year trip to the co-op elevator . . .

A few critics will dismiss The Wheeling Year because it lovingly brings to life the rural Nebraska that has been Kooser’s home for decades now, or because it does not take place on one of the coasts. Some may say it stakes out no new territory in either poetry or prose (or prose poetry). But what Kooser has been doing for years now in Local Wonders and other collections like Delights & Shadows (2004) and the recently published, Splitting an Order (2014), is nothing less than radical at a time when sincerity is mocked or devalued, and when a smirking irony is the coin of the realm. Perhaps what critics resist in Kooser’s work is his invitation to slow down, sit still and pay such close attention to an object or scene that it suddenly comes alive and becomes almost sentient in the mind’s eye. His poems and this book of prose have arrived at just the right time, when we all need the reminder to lay down our phones, tablets and laptops–whatever keeps us from looking out the window or meeting the eyes of a passerby–and notice the actual world. As he writes in one of the entries for December: “It is all around us, free, this wonderful life: clear jingle of the tire chains, the laughter of ice that breaks under our boots. Each hour’s a gift to those who take it up.” Often, he also subtly and gently urges not to waste too much of our precious time: “But mostly the days, by the dozen, dry out and get thrown to the birds, sparrows and starlings to whom each hour is every bit as tasty as the last.”

Ted Kooser’s writing is such that readers can enjoy the playful, lyrical surface of what he describes, and leave it at that, or they may dig deeper into these pieces and begin to see seventy-five years worth of poetic skill and wisdom at work. In fact, if we look more closely at many of these entries, they begin to sound like wake-up calls directed at those of us who often speed past the present moment, seeking a more attractive future that may or may not exist:

In the baby’s fist is the first thing he owns, a little ball of air, but soon he tires of this and grabs another, then another after that. So early in life we learn about more, and having more. In more, it seems we have eternity, and for years we grasp and grasp, until one day we find that we have less. And then life goes and goes, it floats away, and at the end we find our hand is empty, but for one small ball of air.

I cannot guarantee that The Wheeling Year will change the life of everyone who reads it. I can only attest that Ted Kooser’s sincere, heartfelt and meticulously drawn entries have changed the way I see and interact with my own world. I have begun to notice, for instance, how the bluish glow of the nightlight in my bathroom matches that of lake ice, and how the late evening sun streaming through the bedroom window makes a trapdoor of warm light on the hardwood floor. Even at the big-box electronics store the other night, I watched a salesman, when he thought no one was looking, bopping his head to the beat of some private tune only he could hear. “Each hour’s a gift,” Kooser says, “to those who take it up.”