Of his approach over his half-a-century-and-counting career, former U.S. Poet Laureate and former "American Life in Poetry" columnist Ted Kooser has said, "I write for other people with the hope that I can help them to see the wonderful things within their everyday experiences. In short, I want to show people how interesting the ordinary world can be if you pay attention."
In their new book, "Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech," Kooser and acclaimed fellow poet Connie Wanek offer 30 poems to inspire readers ages 10 and up to relish this magic in the seemingly quotidian. Organized by the elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth, these poems encourage the notion that, "as if it were a favorite cat or dog, playing with your imagination can keep it healthy and happy," as Kooser writes in their afterword.
Wanek adds that, "Sometimes trees or clouds or horses or other people — or even a certain car or the fuel that runs it — seem to summon our imaginations."
Wanek, who lives in Duluth, is the author of four collections of poetry for adults, including most recently 2016's "Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems," published by University of Nebraska Press as the second in their Contemporary Poetry Series, edited by Kooser. The shared affinity for a simple and direct style and an alertness to quiet yet moving moments displayed in each of their solo work for adults blends harmoniously here in their work for kids.
A figure of speech, of course, is a word or phrase used in a non-literal sense for rhetorical or vivid effect, and this book revels in showing young people how they work and why they are so much fun. In a poem called, "Thunderstorm," for instance, the titular phenomenon comes alive as a person who has "gotten up in the night / and, not wanting to wake us, / stumbles around, bumping the walls / of the long empty hallway leading away, / now and then lighting a match / and then, just as quickly, blowing it out."
In one called, "July," the joy of words leaps off the page: "One summer day I was boiled and salted / like a peanut. I was the meat / in a heat sandwich, the dog in a hot." The book feels attuned to the fanciful way so many children are naturally inclined to view the world, and to guide them to an even deeper immersion into seeing a tadpole as "a huge comma, / soft and black" or a harpist as having "taken a great golden moth / into her arms."
Spare and wholesome yet richly evocative, Richard Jones' illustrations — of meteor showers, snowy moonlit fields, horses amid papery white birch trees and more — enhance and deepen the charm of each poem.
Wanek points out that "it's fun to listen for voices from unexpected places." In "Marshmallow Clouds," she and Kooser enchantingly embolden readers of all ages to open their ears, not to mention their minds and hearts.
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey." Her poetry collection "Where Are the Snows," winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in the fall of 2022.
By: Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek.
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 72 pages, $19.99.