Book review-Midwest Hymns by Dale Cottingham
by Dale Cottingham
Kelsay Books, 2023
reviewed by Lana Hechtman Ayers
Dale Cottingham’s Midwest Hymns are indeed true songs of praise. Though not religious, as the cover image of a church may imply, his poems embody the spirit of the landscape and the people of the Midwest. The subtext is yearning—for home, connection, forgiveness, a sense of peace. The language of Cottingham’s poems is deceptively straightforward, quiet and unassuming, but the images he creates are poignant, cinematographic, and haunting.
Some of the poems hark back to earlier times, as in the opening poem “History Once Removed,” about a one-room schoolhouse relocated to county fairgrounds as an exhibit. The outer building may be newly refurbished but the inside still reverberates with generations of farm children who:
read American classics:
Moby Dick, Walden, Poe,
their feet restless
on that hard wood floor
with some brightness
or shadowed terror
the language revealed.
Other poems in the collection paint a picture of change, as in “Pond Gone Dry,” referencing both global warming and the necessary, though sometimes futile, resourcefulness of the people who dwell on the plains:
Maybe the rains haven’t
come right for too long,
exposing tangled weeds and silt.
It’s like this on these plains,
some ideas thrown up in hope
over time, that fail to take.
The poem “Two Trees,” about entwined trees growing “close as lovers” moves the reader well beyond the loss of flora into the realm of human grief:
Come spring, one tree
wore luminous green,
pungent leaves breathing
April’s warmer air
while the other
stayed a lifeless gray,
as if one died
in the arms of the other.
And speaking of human loss, “In the Kitchen” relates something difficult to express—the waning of closeness that often sneakily progresses in long-term relationships and goes unnoticed until it is too late to reverse:
We chat without conviction
of taking an Italian vacation,
missing accidental happiness
we found in the kitchen,
when evening sifted through the open window,
and words seemed beside the point—
Central to the theme of Midwest Hymns is this portrait of a “Small Flatland Town” with its gravel road, a man tamping fence posts in hard earth, boys riding bikes, a woman at her sink, that culminated in a stunning final stanza:
At the church amongst
the small congregation of houses,
untrained voices raise
a hymn in the evening air,
while two dogs lying
amicably on a lawn
raise their heads
and join the chorus,
singing the darkness in.
“Mid-Continent” tells the history of growing up in a place and time with elegance and economy:
Too far to walk, we drove cars to buy groceries,
jeans, and magazines in town, where movies
were parceled out to us from the far, exotic Hollywood,
and television said we were going to the moon.
Schools remained open. Opinions spread like fever.
The plough was put to the ground.
Near the close of the collection, “Sunset at Boise City” relates experiences of the young versus the old, and the elders’ feelings not of regret but of the deep solace acceptance and presence bring:
The dogs turn thrice around
before settling down,
boys make the most of the day’s last light,
and old men are content
to let darkness in.
As poet and novelist Rebecca Kaiser Gibson states, “Cottingham renders a cast of individuals, in their profound isolation, with understated love. There is a quiet confidence here that rewards the reader and a restrained language of longing that honors the complexities of living.” Midwest Hymns is a collection of poems that readers, no matter from where they hail, can return to again and again to discover new and deeper insights into how to live with genuineness and gratitude.
Lana Hechtman Ayers, MFA, is a poet, publisher, and aspiring novelist. She’s authored nine collections of poetry, one of which was nominated for the National Book Award. A multiple Pushcart nominee, Lana has won honors in the Discovery / The Nation Award, the Rita Dove Poetry Prize, and the Rhysling Award. She enjoys the Pacific Northwest’s bountiful rain and copious coffee shops. Her favorite color is the swirl of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.