It’s Valentine’s Day, and I am jealous. Since 1986, the poet Ted Kooser has been sending women original poems printed on postcards that arrived faithfully every February 14th, his mailing list eventually growing to 2,600 souls, and I was not among them. Sigh. My Valentine shoebox, stenciled with my name, decorated with pink hearts, rested empty for want of these poems. In the introduction to Valentines, Kooser writes that on the first year of this project, he sent a poem to 50 women, and notes that “my wife, Kathleen, didn’t seem to mind, and she’s tolerated this foolishness of mine every year since, as the list grew and grew. She’s not only a good sport; she also knows that though I’m a flirt, I’m pretty much a harmless geezer…” Kooser was forced to conclude his Valentine poem project in 2007, when the costs of postage and printing became prohibitive.
Let’s see, that’s 26 cents a postcard, and 2,600 recipients, which adds up to $676, not including the printing expenses. That’s a lot of cheddar for a poet. Even for a former U.S. poet laureate. Okay Ted, I guess I forgive you for both offenses: for discontinuing your Valentine mailings, and for leaving me off your list, but only because you have published this book. Valentines presents every Valentine poem Kooser sent since 1986, along with Robert Hanna’s charming illustrations of the Nebraska countryside and home where Kooser lives.
I’ve learned many useful things from this collection, such as the surprising fact that Kooser favors safety scissors for cutting out red paper hearts. I remember being frustrated with safety scissors, which were no match for a sturdy piece of construction paper, but in his poem “A Perfect Heart,” Kooser schools me:
Those safety scissors with the sticky blades
And the rubber grips that pinch a little skin
as you snip along. They make you careful,
Just as you should be, cutting out a heart
For someone you love.
Love requires patience, and safety scissors are a part of that. How could I forget? I’ve also learned, from the poem “Inventory,” that an employee taking stock of a drug store’s candy aisle can be shockingly forward with the bags of gummy bears.
My favorite poem in the book is “Oh, Mariachi Me,” which perfectly captures the romantic exuberance of the mariachi. It begins:
All my life I have wanted nothing so much
as the love of women. For them I have fashioned
the myth of myself, the singing troubadour
with the flashing eyes. Always for them
my black sombrero with its swinging tassels,
This vest embroidered with hearts, these trousers
with silver studs down the seams.
Don’t all who love wish they could bare their hearts in this way to their beloved, belting it out in a ringing voice, or at the very least blaring it through the clear, bright tones of a trumpet?
Kooser is just as good at conveying the settled, companionate love of long-married couples as he is at portraying the swaggering affection of a young man. In “Splitting An Order,” Kooser carefully describes “an old man cutting a sandwich in half” to share with his wife, who “meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.”
“The Celery Heart” finds unexpected pathos in the produce aisle of the Hinky Dinky. The speaker bemoans the fate of a stalk of celery, resting in the refrigerated section: “Its only consolations are, at regular intervals, the hiss of mist, and at times the warm and reassuring squeeze of a passing hand.” I’ll think twice before the next time I reach toward the celery for a cheap feel. Come to think of it, my comportment with melons and tomatoes at the supermarket has long been less than chivalric.
Some of these poems are unabashedly sweet, such as “The Bluet,” which celebrates the little blue flower (“each with four petals, each with a star/ at its heart.”), and others tackle more rough-hewn topics, such as “Chocolate Checkers,” in which two homeless men enjoy a game of checkers played with chocolate pieces in a public park, oblivious to the disapproving glances around them.
People who weren’t fortunate enough to make it onto Kooser’s Valentine’s list—which included such recipients as the novelist Louise Erdrich and the actress Debra Winger—do not have to sit home alone with an empty Valentine shoebox any longer. Ted Kooser’s Valentines will fill any shoebox to the brim with romance and wry insight.