‘Lights on a Ground of Darkness’ by Ted Kooser

It’s a subject ripe for sentimentality -- a middle-aged man considers the idyllic movements of his childhood, in a small town in the Midwest at midcentury. Yet “Lights on a Ground of Darkness” (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press: 60 pp., $10.95 paper), former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser’s piercing look back at his mother’s family, is anything but romanticized. Rather, written in a prose as spare as a winter sunset, it is an elegy, not just for Kooser’s forebears but for all of us.

Kooser constructs the book around a single evening: a summer night in 1949, when he is 10 and his grandparents host a pinochle game at their home in Iowa. The game itself is irrelevant; it could be anything, and besides, we never see anyone play. Kooser, however, uses the setting as a frame, moving back and forth from past to present, describing how a way of life has been eclipsed.

The author’s grandfather was a farmer turned service station operator who bought his first car in the 1920s. "[A]s he paid for his first tank of gas,” his grandson writes, “he understood at once that the days of sustainable agriculture were over, that the wealth of his farmland would gradually drain away to the east.” Such an inevitable air of loss haunts the book, in which memories appear like ghostly whispers, “a few old sticks of furniture, an old harp split like a gourd from dryness, and a flute full of dust.”

Still, for all that, Kooser is less mournful than quietly reflective, as he recalls his grandparents, his mother and his much-adored Uncle Elvy, who had cerebral palsy and loved to fish. All of them may be gone now, he acknowledges, but their stories linger “in our imaginations, becoming a permanent part of us. . . . We are learning the way in which stories end, how they drift into near silence, yet leave an after-ringing, like a bell.”

-- David L. Ulin