Ted Kooser

I can feel the thick yellow fat of applause
building up in my arteries, friends,
yet I go on, a fool for adoration. Do I care
that when it sloughs off it is likely to go
straight to the brain? I am already showing
the first signs of poetic aphasia,
the words coming hard, the synapses
of metaphor no longer connecting.
But look at me, down on my knees
next to the podium, lapping the last drops,
then rolling in the stain like a dog,
getting the smell in my good tweed sport coat,
the grease on my suede elbow patches,
and for what? Well, for the women I walk past
the next morning, the ones in the terminal,
wheeling their luggage, looking so beautifully
earnest. All for the hope that they will
suddenly dilate their nostrils, squeeze
the hard carry-on handles, and rise to
the ripening odor of praise with which I have
basted myself, stinking to heaven.

Splitting an Order

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky arms steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife, and her fork in their proper places,
then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

Bad News

Because it arrives while you sleep,
it’s the one call you never pick up
on the first ring. In that pause between
the fourth and what would be the fifth,
in the flare of a lamp you’ve snapped on,
there it is, having waited all night
until it was time to awaken you,
shaping its sentence over and over,
simple old words you lean into
as into a breath from a cave.
And once the news is out, thrown over
your shoulders like a threadbare robe,
you move on cold feet room to room,
feeling as weightless as a soul,
turning on every light in the house,
needing the light all around you
because it’s a new day now, though still
in darkness hours before dawn,
a day you’ll learn to call that day,
the first morning after it happened.

Spanish Lessons

My wife moves room to room,
touching our humble belongings
with a wand of new words –
the iron, the coffee pot, the radio –
making them notice themselves
for the first time in years.
In the kitchen, I hear her
cracking a few round syllables
into a pan of agua, followed soon
by a brisk, gutteral bubbling,
and later she’s climbing the stairs
with an armload of colorful noises,
dropping a few shaggy petals
on every other step. She’s going
to fill the bathtub now and scatter
fresh flowers of language
over the surface, then lie there
steeping among them, calling out
the new names for shampoo,
for bath mat, toilet, and toothbrush,
lying there with her ears just out of
the water, loving the echoes.

Two Men on an Errand

The younger, a balloon of a man
in his sixties with some of the life
let out of him, sags on the cheap couch
in the car repair shop’s waiting room.
Scuffed shoes, white socks, blue trousers,
a nondescript gray winter jacket.
His face is pale, and his balding head
nods with some kind of palsy. His fists
stand like stones on the tops of his thighs –
white boulders, alabaster – and the flesh
sinks under the weight of everything
he’s squeezed within them. The other man
is maybe eighty-five, thin and bent
over his center. One foot swollen
into a foam rubber sandal, the other
tight in a hard, black shoe. Blue jeans,
black jacket with a semi tractor
appliqued on the back, white hair
fine as a cirrus cloud. He leans
forward onto a cane, with both hands
at rest on its handle as if it were
a steering wheel. The two sit side by side,
a bony hip against a fleshy one,
talking of car repairs, about the engine
not hitting on all the cylinders.
It seems the big man drove them here,
bringing the old man’s car, and now
they are waiting, now they have to wait
or want to wait until the next thing
happens, and they can go at it
together, the younger man nodding,
the older steering with his cane.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter