I am a foot with my vision ... I tramp a perpetual journey." --Walt Whitman
JOURNEY NARRATIVES may well have been central to storytelling since our earliest ancestors sallied forth from camp in search of roots and berries and returned to the clan with rich accounts of life's perils and possibilities. Cave walls of Lascaux, sandstone etchings in Asia, and cliffside petroglyphs in the southwestern part of our continent attest to the human urge to record life's experiences. Oral and written literature abounds with the comings and goings of mortals and their deities, from Inanna's journey to the underworld to Odysseus's long trip home.
Even our own relatively short literary tradition in North America has been long on travel narratives. Examples range from the literal to the metaphysical, from the thirteen volumes of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to Joy Harjo's The Woman Who Fell From the Sky; from Henry David Thoreau's meditative essay, "Walking," to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Like stacked stones found in deserts and painted symbols on cliff sides, these writings, representing a myriad of genres, are letters home, telling us not only where others have gone but pointing to the possibilities of travel.
Ted Kooser's Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, continues this tradition, combining the story of a middle-aged poet facing the aftermath of cancer surgery with the archetypal journey of Everyman summoned by Death. Widely published and frequently anthologized, Kooser, born in Ames, Iowa, on April 25, 1939, has published nine full-length collections of poems, most recently Weather Central, as well as in a collection of essays, Local Wonders: Season in the Bohemian Alps, about life in rural Nebraska, where Kooser has been a long time resident. In Does Poetry Matter? Dana Gioia lauds Kooser's "consummate skill with which he handles the self-imposed limits of the short imagistic poem, the universal significance he projects from his local subject matter" (97).
On June 1, 1998, during a routine dental check up, Kooser pointed to a "sore spot" at the back of his tongue that had been troubling him for some time (Letters, Nathan, 2 June, 1998). Two weeks later, surgeons removed a small tumor from Kooser's tongue and discovered cancer in three adjacent lymph nodes in his neck. Thirty radiation treatments began the second week of July and lasted through August 26 (McMahon; Letters, Kim, et al., 11 July 1998; Meeks, 15 September 1998). As Kooser writes in the preface to Walks, that summer, "depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I'd all but given up on reading and writing" (5).
By September 15, however, radiation completed, Kooser wrote to friends that "I am beginning to read and write even to laugh once in a while.... The world looks good to me as autumn begins to show" (Letters', Meeks). In early October, the poet returned to his desk. He wrote to long-time friend Jim Harrison: "Yesterday, for the first time since I got sick I sat at my desk for a while.... Felt like a real poet for a few minutes" (Letters, Harrison, 2 October, 1998). On the 15th of the month, Kooser posted a new poem, "An October Evening," to Leonard and Carol Nathan, which opens
On the barn door, an unlocked padlock, and in the hole where the hasp snaps in some tiny creature has spun a cocoon so thin and gray I thought at first the lock had somehow filled with dust. (1-10)
This poem, with its cocoon taking refuge in the barn door lock, suggests that the poet was approaching another door, one that would lead him back to his art. Three weeks later, Kooser pasted the first dated poem of Winter Morning Walks on a post card to Jim Harrison (Letters, 9 November, 1998). Soon Kooser was writing and mailing off new work off on a daily basis.
Kooser's interest in postcards is not new. Fifteen "postcard poems" are included in Local Habitation and A Name, although in the case of the 1974 volume, the texts are transcriptions of actual greetings posted during the early part of the 20th century, found poems, that Kooser salvaged from local second-hand and antique stores and coaxed into poetic form (Kooser, 24 March 2001). Since the 1970s, Kooser has issued postcard renditions of his own work, including a series of annual Valentine's Day poems. It may also be true, as Karl Shapiro suggests in his introduction to Local Habitation, that there is something about the "spirit of the place" Kooser writes about that prompts people to "speak out of postcards" (n.p.).
By the time Kooser's six-month medical report indicated "a good chance at the 5-year recovery period," Kooser had batched selections of the new poems, sent them off to Shenandoah and The Midwest Quarterly, and settled on Winter Morning Walks, Postcards …