You've seen them -
the pitchers who are all wind-up and no pitch. And perhaps you've seen the other ones, those who take all day to wind-up and who can throw too. I think of Warren Spahn - it was a long time before he got his arms and legs all unfolded and the ball released, and when he did it would be quite a pitch.
Greg Kosmicki writes that way. He is the Warren Spahn of poets. He's never in a hurry to get the point of the poem out there, and when he does it's worth waiting for. These are not "talky" poems, these poems in his recent collection, Some Hero of the Past,* but neither is there the urgency and compression you come to expect in poetry. Kosmicki lets the poem take its own good time. Folks who get scared off poetry because it slaps them up right off will appreciate Kosmicki's manner. He lulls you into the poem. Usually I don't have much time for poetry that isn't strung tight, but Kosmicki's poems convince me otherwise: the going itself, the journey to the point, is part of the point in his poems. These loose-limbed lines couldn't be more different from the kind I write, yet I am enchanted.
The opening poem gives it away. "12 Below, Morning" has a rambling start - "Coming out the door this morning I heard the bird / I can't remember the name...." He had once asked his friend Jack what the name is, but can't remember what Jack said, either. In any case, "... the name we call this bird... means nothing to that bird." And Jack? "His name / fits him somehow, / and this is what I heard / this morning."
Then we find two pages of ramble about a building being torn down: "stairs going to nowhere, green wall, / pink wall, green wall, some picture frames, / doorways opened to nothing...." What's the point? Kosmicki always brings us to that moment when the poem shows itself: "Maybe that building coming down reminded me / of my own death somehow...."
"OK," he says in the third poem of the book, and he's off to the races for twenty-six lines. Where do we end? "Because these are things to praise let us praise them."
It is easy to see that you couldn't just stop by Kosmicki's house intending to drop off a book quick-like. If he were home, no doubt he'd have to tell you a story, at least one story, in technicolor. You know the kind of fellow I'm talking about - he gets your attention and sets the hook, and then just keeps reeling you in. "There is something in the cool night air that makes you more alive / somehow than what is in the air at any other time except maybe early // morning." It's a feeling "of expectation of the beginning or the fulfillment of something. It's / what they call immanence...."
But under the streetlights you think of your father,
that cold morning
duck hunting at Dewitt's place, knocking at their door
to get permission,
yellow light in the blue snow, the winter after your
brother wrecked and died
in the car and your whole life changed,
before you knew it had.
You're filled with expectation, the feeling of immanence, and then Kosmicki hits you with the magnitude of his loss. Your life does change forever when your brother dies; you may not know it at the time, but nothing will ever be the same. Some part of you is torn out and the wound never heals. You cannot even begin to imagine what it was like for your parents, losing a child.
Kosmicki was writing a poem at work, on his lunch break, and some lawyer somewhere might think that the poem therefore belongs to his employer, the State of Nebraska. "If the State of Nebraska wants the value of the poem when I become famous for having written it," Kosmicki says, "then the State may have it.... If it were easy, or paid anything, or had any value, well then it wouldn't be poetry."
The poem "C's Sister" is langourous, like it's subject, "... just fourteen / but she had the sexiest, deepest // voice of any girl / I had ever / heard...." The lines move so slowly they hardly move at all and you don't know where the poem is going and then it's gone:
there was no way we
what would happen
to her older brother
in Viet Name
got over like
And finally I think I'm starting to get it. The long wind-up, the conversational pitch, exact detail piled on the exact detail, all these are put in place to fend off loss. Has something been lost in every Kosmicki poem? Are we never going to get it back? You might convince me, because that's the way I'm leaning. Loss is everywhere.
Yet Kosmicki wants to take the long view. "Koz Zen" starts to tell us that everything is somehow important. Kosmicki is doing the laundry:
It is in doing what I don't want to do
that I will become a better person
if I do it happily, I think.
I know that if I can remember this
several thousand times more that some old
Zen master will turn and smile at me
across a million years' worth of laundry,
his hand on the other handle of the basket.
When you're writing a poem after talking a walk, Kosmicki tells us:
You want art. You want something
permanent, something for the ages
something that one might read
some dark night and decide
against death. Words a person might
shape her life around, words that surface
like an ancient artifact through ice,
strong and purposeful as a handmade tool.
But all you get is this walking around.
And what you find, in poem after poem here, is the ordinary stuff of our living. Where we live is where Kosmicki pulls his art from. He doesn't gussy it up, but shows it as it is, as plain as our lives. That is beauty enough. It might be mowing the lawn after dark, popsicles, still life with moon and trees, waking his daughter up. It might be that he and his wife are talking "until / years fall down like rain." Might be a squirrel, a dead cockroach, his high school yearbook. Crows and crickets and cars.
There are still moments in Kosmicki's life, moments past which have become eternal for him, without which he would not be who he is. That walk back from swimming, their towels over their shoulders, her white thighs flashing, with that girl who had the husky voice. The moment his older brother who died in the car wreck put his arm on the shoulder of the poet as a young boy, "the first / and last time he ever did."
The poems are so very much in the present tense, even when they are concerned with things of the past. In the act of poetry, Kosmicki has to grab at as much of the life flowing past as he can get, get hold of all that around him. He so much needs to write it all down, to fit it all in, else this too will be something lost, another emptiness in our lives.
It's a chant. Pay attention, Kosmicki is saying. "That squirrel // might be saying 'Welcome! Human! Friend!'" The crickets might be saying "yet and yet and yet and yet." The meadowlarks are "calling to me the world's first name." He might be remembering that shelterbelt, "Purintan's Trees," and admitting to himself:
I never realized till I was driving
into town the day of Fred's burial
how much the landscape changed, without those trees.
And finally you do understand. All things are holy. Kosmicki is teaching us to see. He is pointing to this and this and this, to all of our everythings, saying "This is a sacred moment. This is holy." The heart of Some Hero of the Past, for me, is found in the poem "Looking Out on the Morning Street, Writing Retreat, Last Morning," the center from which all the other poems emanate, and to which they return. If all the Warren Spahn wind-up in Kosmicki's poems comes to anything, this is the reason:
Lots of cars heading to the school, then two buses.
Sun shining across the Farmer's Bank.
Makes it look like a painting by Belotta.
I'm making oatmeal in the microwave,
coffee's perking, I've taken all my pills.
I remember when I was a young writer
all these things would have seemed
to have a significance, just by writing them down.
Now I see they have significance
whether I write them or not.
What is there to say beyond that, except to be grateful, as Kosmicki is. From "Earth Smell:"
... I'm glad for him and me that he wrote
this music that is seven minutes long
to watch stars come out by,
to drive back home by,
to smell the earth smell by,
and to breathe it in.
*Some Hero of the Past by Greg Kosmicki. 2006. Word Press, PO Box 541106, Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106. www.word-press.com . $17.00.