A Rainy Morning
by Ted Kooser
A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.
I was midway through my first semester in grad school—which, for me, meant a preoccupation with getting laughs and/or raising eyebrows in workshops so I’d have something to swagger about at the local beer garden afterwards—when I stumbled across A Rainy Morning by Ted Kooser. To be honest, at first, I didn’t think much of it. Too few lyrical pyrotechnics, not enough risk. Of course, back then, I still thought of risk in terms of how much you might potentially offend an audience with obscenity, blasphemy, or loud, wholly foreshadowed narrative turns. It didn’t occur to me (or maybe I just didn’t remember) that another totally legitimate form of risk (especially with narrative poetry) is to simply pull the drain on one’s own ego and focus entirely on the imagery and action of a single scene.
Eventually, after a few more readings, the light bulb came on—which is a nicer way of saying I got my head out of my ass and realized what I should have realized all along.
At the risk of stating the obvious, in this poem, Kooser relies on simple language and straight-forward descriptions; in fact, all but two of the words in the poem (pianist and concentration) are a mere one or two syllables. This suggests a validation of everyday human experience that extends beyond this unapologetically colloquial scene, every bit as much as William Carlos Williams’ rain-glazed wheelbarrow.
But the real genius here is Kooser’s comparison of a young woman in a wheelchair to an impassioned concert pianist performing before a rapt audience—that is, the juxtaposition of a handicap (something generally seen as negative, something we’d like to avoid having or even acknowledging) with a venerated, center-stage performer whose skill, artistry, and validity are beyond question. In so doing, he not only implies the existence of an audience; he makes us that audience! We hear the thunder of the chords; we feel the rain in our eyes. (Maybe we even start wondering exactly what blessing/curse is turning our pages.) But don’t worry; sure, the scene is fairly bittersweet (its basis is still a solitary handicapped woman pushing her wheelchair through the rain, after all), but if we can acknowledge the quiet artistry of her long white fingers playing that practiced melody, it’s a short leap to accepting the validity of our own lives, our own efforts in all their bumbling, beautiful absurdity.