In the beginning of the poem, “White,” Sandra Kohler writes

I go around half the time thinking I have
a fatal illness, and I do: life.

In Improbable Music, Kohler observes this condition minutely.  It is the illness of dealing with the dying of others.  It is the effort of trying to grasp and hold on to the ever shifting self.

The world presented in this book is the world many of her readers live in: the complicated world where family relationships occupy most of our time and energy. As keenly as she observes the moods of these relationships, Kohler observes the shifting backdrop of nature: sky, trees, birds.

The first section of the book focuses on extended family relationships; the fourth and final section pairs with this, focusing on the intimacy of a long marriage.  The third section acknowledges the impact of the larger world on the domestic, picturing families caught in major crises of our time: Bosnia, Palestine, Sierra Leone.

Heron in Flight

The second section is in some ways my favorite; it focuses on the natural world, but with a delightful twist in the character of Heraclitus the heron.  Kohler admits that she may be giving this name to more than one heron.  She writes in “Herons Present and Absent”:

The river without
herons: a diminished
thing, lifeless,
dispirited.
They are my wild
swans, my muse
of absence.

And later in the same poem she returns to uncertainties about the self:

Is it the herons
that have returned
or my ability
to see them?

Some poems are written in short lines like those quoted above.  Others have longer lines with complex syntax.  Most of the poems are long, many in sections, which allows plenty of time for exploring the shifting self.  One of the shorter poems, “The Cup,” captures uncertainty, ambivalence and shift:

This morning, the last of the year, I use my old cup.
The cup that is always there.  Ten days from the solstice:
ten, twelve minutes more light?  Not even that?  I don’t
know.  Cold, I am wrapped in my Guatemalan blanket.
The cold is solid, settled.  My son calls me a sore loser.
That’s it exactly: I ache with losing him.  The cup of losses.
A glitch in my side, an ache, the slow stitchery of a wound
healing or opening.  I’m suspended, detached, unused.
The cup of waiting and the cup of sighs.  How this moment
will be remembered or forgotten depends upon the fact
of morning, on the ice on the creek, on the thin layer of
cloud that screens the horizon’s uniform desolation.
The cup of loneliness and the cup of longing for solitude.
We dream what belongs to the night but the day wakes
echoes of old wars, scarred shadows of scathing blows.
The cup of insecure anxious needing to matter, impress
the self on the world.  In the face of failure, isolation, loss,
we utter variations on a singular theme: I, I, I.  We don’t
want to believe this of our life, though it is ratified by
the minutes of increased light burning on the partially
frozen stream.  The cup of ego, the cup of emptiness.

Every claim to an “I” is a variation; every cup contains a piece of the self.  The weather seems to echo the self, but does not.  Even the night’s dreams and the day’s shadows cannot be sorted out.  Kohler digs deeply into the flux that underlies every claim of identity and offers no answers.  The reading satisfies as the songs of a fellow traveler.  This is not a quick read, but a book to take one’s time with.

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