The Poets Tangled in My Sheets  |  Casey Francis

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             Before I ever really became intimate with them, strange women and men lounged around my bedroom. As in the after-blur of a wild party, they just showed up one night to awaken tangled in my sheets, bleary-eyed, still drunk. Some sprawled across my bed, lying face down, and others were spread-eagled, opened, and exposed with their spines broken. A few sat curtly on shelves. Crisp dust jackets hid their true colors. I have no idea where many of these books came from—little somethings I picked up for a quarter at a library sale or the Salvation Army. Others, I paid too much for because my hedonism rushed me into buying the hardback. A few were gifts, and quite a few more were copies from a friend of a friend of a friend. I love them all.
             I can’t remember when Ted showed up. Some time during college: a classic story of an older man seducing an impressionable college student. I vaguely remember reading a newspaper article about him—something about a Pulitzer Prize—and then, before I knew it, he was approaching me in the library stacks, holding out his hand, saying, “Hello, I’m Ted Kooser. This is my collection, Delights & Shadows. And I’d like to see more of you.”
              I was not impressed with his large ears or the talk I had heard—a plain poet writing plainly about the Great Plains. Reviewers use words like quiet and country to describe his work. Plus, he was a little too young for me then. At the time, I liked my poets vetted and appropriately positioned in the canon, often dead. When walking through the quad with an arm wrapped around Yeats, no one asks, “Who’s that?” But, still, Ted ended up being the first poet I ever really loved.
             The Los Angeles Times Book Review described the slim green collection, Delights & Shadows, as having “a deep stillness at its center, perfectly self-contained, yet echoing like a country well.” The quote made my eyes roll the first time I read it on the back of Ted’s book. But I liked the painting on the front cover. The canvas is painted nearly all black. A starburst radiates in the center from an unseen light fixture mounted on a power pole. Only the immediate ground is brightly lit. Highlighted are delicate lengths of power lines and the clapboards of two outbuildings. Viewers of the painting look toward the light from the darkness.
             Ted being chosen as Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress that year may also have influenced my decision to read his book. The bigger reason, however, was that he was from Nebraska. True, he was unfortunate enough to be born in Iowa, but after college, he found good sense and his adoptive home in Nebraska. And my grandparents taught me always to extend my hand and shake firm with any neighbors, even ones like Iowa. Actually, Iowa is a wonderful state, second best to Nebraska, but still wonderful. You get defensive when living in states like Nebraska or Iowa. Everyone talks about what you lack: people, professional sports teams, any shred of cool. You get plenty of credit for possessing ample amounts of xenophobia, population loss, and industrial-scale farming. Because of this, people from states like Nebraska and Iowa have to grasp for any externally validated point of pride. So when The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and The Washington Post said Nebraska poet Ted Kooser was worth reading, I did.
             My copy of Delights & Shadows is pristine. A few notes and dog-eared corners, but the cover shows remarkably little wear, even though it gets packed among pairs of jeans in my duffel bag or rides in the plastic cranny of my car door whenever I travel away from home for more than a day. Home has not been my real home in Nebraska for several years, but sometimes as I travel, an overwhelming feeling that I am not there, not home, not in Nebraska, comes over me. When this happens, I stop whatever I am doing. I open Delights & Shadows, usually at random, and I go home. I’ll read lines like, “A farmhouse window far back from the highway / speaks to the darkness in a small, sure voice” in the poem, “A Winter Morning,” and suddenly I am driving on Highway 77 toward my hometown of Lyons. Farmhouses and outbuildings sit snuggly against their windbreaks. The light from a single window peels a bit of the darkness away to let me know I am home. That’s how Ted seduced me, still seduces me.
             There have been others besides Ted, of course. That’s life, right? A little time goes by, then there’s a spat or a friend insists you meet so-and-so or just some fresh, new, slim little volume comes along, and an entirely new love affair kicks up. I think my love may be too much, too fast. But how can anyone be poetically celibate? How can anyone resist the possibility of feeling that feeling when a poet strokes you just so and without ever being told how you really like it?
             I met and hooked up with my next poet lovers simultaneously: The Best of It by Kay Ryan and Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. They left me thoroughly satisfied, but it made me feel like a floozy when I would be reading in bed with Kay and glance over to see Brian’s glossy cover with its mysterious soldier waiting on my bedside table. And I would feel even worse when I would slip off Kay’s dust jacket and carelessly toss it on top of Brian. But both poets give me something different, something I yearn for, something I need.
             Brian’s poems are romantic, muscular, a portrait of war’s anguish. They are the images of “each twist of the round / spun deeper, because here, Bullet, / here is where the world ends, every time.” Kay’s poetry, however, is supple and petite. Rarely do her lines get wider than three words. She packs in so much, so quickly, that often I read the same poem again without any time for recovery. Kay teases with odd observations, like, “Only two of / the dog’s legs / dogleg … / Fifty-fifty: that’s / as bad as it / gets usually, / despite the / fear you feel / when life has / angled brutally.” Brian and Kay have proven to me that poetic monogamy does not work.
             And to be truthful, there are even other poets who circulate through my bedroom. Nikky Finney, N. Scott Momaday, and Ruth Stone just this month. And as cliché as it may be, I’ll admit that Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost were among my first poet crushes. I met them both in the glow of a fluorescent-lit high school classroom. Emily’s images are rich, and she is pretty and smart. And that dash—who isn’t smitten with her dash? But whenever I sit down to commune with Emily, I inevitably end up with a scalpel, busily dissecting, pinning back the skin to reveal the innards of the poem. Robert’s stories—“The Death of the Hired Man,” “Out, Out—,” “Home Burial”—still sweep me off my feet. Sometimes, though, I feel the need to defend my Bobbie Frost by saying, “No, he meant to do it like that. He’s not being pushed around by any old bully of a rhyme.”
             Regardless, Emily and Robert sit on the very same shelves as Kay and Brian and all my other poets, even my Ted. Ted really wouldn’t have it any other way than standing in alphabetical order, shoulder to shoulder with his peers. I suspect, however, the other books give him a good teasing when he returns to the shelf after a long absence—his pages having been turned slowly between my sheets, doing that thing he does I love so much.

♥ End ♥

Casey Francis works as a gymnastics coach and very occasional adjunct college instructor. He also works for the Center for Rural Affairs.

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