Reviews & Interviews
Review: Gold Oct, 2013
Barbara Crooker’s newest book, Gold, shimmers with complementary colors, seasons, and relationships. In the opening pages, poems on autumn, aging, and her mother’s final days showcase her keen eye and multifaceted themes in shades of gold, blue, and red.
For example, a tree’s vibrant striptease is both dance and decline.
Your red silk
slip, gorgeous on these sheets
of satin blue, will fray and crumple,
turn into rags. Sooner, or later,
we’ll all fall down.
The poem serves as prelude to the book’s elegies in which Crooker celebrates life while facing mortality. In “All Saints,” her ailing mother wants only to listen to birds and eat sweets. Relishing the time together, the daughter sits in the sun and sips coffee. “It’s one day past the Day of the Dead…. But on this blue day of perfect weather, I can’t muster/sadness….All the leaves are ringing, like the tiny bells of God./My mother, too, is ready to leave.”
In this and other poems, the mother craves festive foods—fudge, donuts, marshmallow peeps. The daughter, too, wants the “sweetness” of this life to “linger.” Eventually, it sifts away “grain by grain,” an image that reappears when the poet scatters her mother’s ashes. As Crooker reminds us “A woman is her mother, but alone.” By embracing all that she and her mother shared, the poet also recognizes what she’s lost.
Similarly, the poet addresses intimacy and solitude in long-term marriage. In one of my favorite poems, “A fisherman/casts in the surf/one more time,/a long silky filament,/the thread that still/joins me to you;/ it snaps taut, then loosens,/and he pulls it back in.” Just as with her mother, distance from the poet’s spouse underscores their closeness.
Every lyric in this collection resonates with another. Poems planted firmly in August or October echo those set in February and April. Images re-emerge in tear-shaped seeds of zucchinis and the Oriental Poppies of Georgia O’Keefe. In one poem, Crooker doesn’t recognize any of the notes she’s made in the margins of an old literature anthology. In another, she struggles to write, finding words as elusive as “that bird over there, the one/that’s singing its heart out, just out of sight.”
In Gold, Barbara Crooker does sing her heart out. Through her depiction of every color-saturated, joyful, and sorrowful season, we, too, can experience Crooker’s world—in all its loud clanging and bright shining.
Marjorie Maddox is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lock Haven University. Her newest poetry collection, Local News from Someplace Else , focuses on living in an unsafe world.
More , 2012
Reviewed by Rebecca Foust in The American Poetry Journal
The overarching theme in Barbara Crooker’s third full-length book, More, is insatiable hunger—not just of the body but also, echoing the opening quotation by Bruce Springsteen—of the heart. “Always, this hunger for more,” the speaker says in the first poem after describing the moon as a “slice of melon, / so delicious” that she “could drown in its sweetness,” so delicious that she longs to “eat the whole/thing down to the rind.”
The concept of “More” bodies forth in fresh and unexpected ways in these poems. In “The Winter Sea,” for example, language that is pared back, muted, and rinsed of color evokes winter images such as the stand of dried weeds that, “reduced and diminished,” nevertheless “remained themselves.” In “My Life as a Song Sparrow,” life is “both more and less than I was / hoping for,” one “made for song” where the body is “sometimes able to take wing.” In fact, more is always less here in that there is never enough of it, and the speaker, conscious of her waning years, yearns for what recedes before her vision like a slow ebb tide. But more is also a plenty in the sense that after one encounters what seems to be an end, something often yet remains. Consider the formerly despised, obese girl in “Holsteins” who “stepped out of that old life/and into another.” And the speaker who, after marriage, divorce, children who grew up, and children who grew up damaged, discovers on a trip to Nice “this new freedom, / slipping into a dress of silk sky, believing/I could speak another language.” Crooker is full of longing, but her message is ultimately one of gratitude for a world where “[a]nything can happen,” and a “cow can grow wings, become an American / Redstart, flit black-and-white from tree / / to tree.”
In More, mastery of technique is apparent in vivid imagery rendered in free verse that achieves a lyrical musicality without meter or overt rhyme. One technique borrows from jazz improvisation, repeating sounds in a pattern-with-variation. In “Geology,” the title finds subtle sonic echoes in phrases like “sings one long song” and closes with a trimester rhyming couplet that uses another kind of variation on a theme:
Something about eternity
Something about the sea.
Here, the stress pattern of “eternity” sonically recalls “geology” and ends that line on an unstable dactyl, a metrical teetering resolved by the last two iambs ringing through “Something about the sea.” In a gesture that adds layers of richness and depth, Crooker goes beyond jazz sound arts and also uses jazz as a figure in her poems, as in sun “laying down its light like a jazz/saxophone lays out its brassy line” and chocolate that “plays jazz at midnight, the low slow/notes of a bass clarinet.”
In More, material taken up from previous pages is knotted into what follows in an intricate macramé in which spaces between links allow the book to breathe like a great, singing lung. The poem that precedes “Finches, Little Pats of butter on the Wing,” begins with “a goldfinch bright as a grace note,” and a cardinal appears in the poem that precedes them both. There are many such poem pairings and groupings in More, enacting in the book’s form the meaning of its title. Look at how these lines from “What You Want” set up the next poem, “Ode to Chocolate.”
What you want comes in five flavors,
and all of them are chocolate:
milk, mocha, alpine, white, semi-, bittersweet.
The linking continues with the next poem’s title, “Ode to Olive Oil,” a poem which likewise includes other images (dissipating light, an aging woman) taken up in previous and in subsequent poems. In one facing-poem diptych—“Demeter” and “Snapshot”—the link is thematic, both poems re-working the Persephone myth from the mother’s point of view. “White” and “Salt” connect in the slant rhyme of their titles. The linking technique transcends poem pairings, fretworking the book with cross and though-lines. For example, “White’s” closing line, “on that last journey home,” reaches back to the exhausted runner of the book’s opening poem, “walking as fast as you can but getting nowhere,” as well as forward to “the cold mountain, / the long journey home” near the end of the book. Likewise, the “Salt” of the poem with that name comes back later as a “salty dive.” Here again, Crooker makes connections at many levels, so that the “Salt” which functions as one poem’s title, subject, image and metaphor also seasons the speaker’s voice in next poem
What you want
is more than refrigerator art
more than making sack lunches
and then shows up again as “lots of sodium” in the list things the speaker wants.
A powerful recurrent image is of light and all the ways it can be spent: “poured from the dark blue sky/of a cardboard cylinder,” “spread on bread,” “falling through the plane trees,” splashed from a bucket, eked out at dawn by a dimmer, “razzl[ing]” sea water into sunset ”jewels,”and leaking out in the afternoon, “a letter at a time.” Other repeated images are of food, the sea, summer fruit and a veritable aviary of birds whose birdsong Crooker phonetically quotes: a cardinal scolds vite, vite, vite, a goldfinch calls you, you, you?, and a gull taunts can’t, can’t can’t.
Another thing Crooker offers “more” of is an unflinching gaze at the ungracefully aging physical body. Many poets, notably Marge Piercy, have written about the way that older women become invisible to men, and our popular culture tutors us daily that it is shameful to look anything but perennially young. In “Surfer Girl,” a speaker on “the far side of sixty” imagines herself in the body of the surfer, “lithe and long-limbed” with “short tousled hair full of sunshine.” Embedded in that daydream is the speaker’s awareness that she is really a much older woman writing a poem about surfing: “choosing my line like I choose these words, writing my name on water, writing my name on air.” Refusing to look away, Crooker describes “the cellulite, the lumps, the bulges” on bodies that creak and sag” but that, insouciant, still enjoy sex:
Tonight there’s fried chicken and sliced
tomatoes, hot biscuits, butter,
and peach jam. And later, you,
next to me on the rumpled
sheets . . .
your sweat slick on my skin.
Such material is risky in today’s uber-cool, detached poetry aesthetic, but Crooker gets away with it because her writing is so strong. One techniques follows the unlovely image with one that is ecstatically gorgeous, so that “creak and sag” gets the quick tonic of “a cup of moonlight/ is pouring in the window;/it glints and winks off your silver hair.” By interweaving allusions to art, literature or travel, Crooker opens the portal from a quiet life in a small Pennsylvania town onto a larger world. In “The Open Window,” for example, the speaker enters the Matisse painting to gazing into and out of the scene framed by the artist at “slabs of salmon baking on their terra cotta/bricks, window panes, peach and melon; trellis,/slashes of mustard and olive.” The language in “At the Renoir Landscape Exhibit,” mimetic of both Renoir’s art and the lifestyle of the affluent couple with whom the speaker shares a fancy dinner, pushes at the lush edge of decadence: “The garden/in twilight: enormous globe thistles, heavy mauve cabbage roses, the scents of exquisite perfumes.”
The last section of More opens with an “anonymous six word memoir” that reads: “All I ever wanted was more” and returns to matters of family and local landscape: a mother who is dying, foxes who come out to make their stand on a suburban lawn. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, so Crooker’s “clouds blooming like peonies on the sky’s/blue meadow” and “daisies freckling the ditch” made me catch my breath in recognition. “Yes” reprises in eleven lines much of what the book has taught us about Crooker’s voice: essential optimism and gratitude in the face of a fierce, un-slaked thirst, tough endurance, a painterly eye for minute detail, and abundant pleasure in all that the senses experience in the world:
I want the sun to run down my face like honey.
I want the wind to kiss me. I want all this to last.
So do we all, of course.
More Jun, 2011
reviewed by Kenneth Fifer in Blueline
Sharply drawn visual imagery, carefully controlled prosody, and deeply felt explorations of the landscapes of the heart—that’s what you’ll find, and more, in Barbara Crooker’s new collection of poetry. These poems create a world that is “small and steady and mundane” yet always shadowed by “impossible rumors,” and do so with a generosity of spirit and self-deprecating humor that will make you want to read on. And that’s why I’m writing to you, hoping to convince you to give More a try:
What you want
would feel so good on your skin
you’d never wear clothes again.
Crooker’s collection is divided into four more or less overlapping parts—personal narratives, memories and family recollections, responses to visual art, and descriptions of natural landscapes. To move through the world of More is to become a connoisseur of transience, a recollecter of things and moments irrecoverably lost, and to acknowledge an art that’s forever aware of a world beyond artfulness.
Beneath our feet, more stones,
dreaming their flinty dreams. They neither yearn
for more nor envy their neighbors. They roll where
where gravity takes them, gather moss and starlight.
They remember glaciers, and they praise the sun.
If you lie on the ground in the moonlight,
they will whisper what you need to save your life.
The insistence that sadness and happiness invariably occupy the same small space, that each moment’s passing pleasures recall irreparable losses, these are the commonplaces of our shared human experience, things we all know, and are therefore especially worth saying. Crooker expects we will be equally drawn to Matisse portraits and shy summer foxes, that we can hardly tell the difference between a sparrow and a family album, and of course she is, repeatedly, right. Wherever we are in More, garden or gallery, pasture or gas station, we are always staring out over the great abyss:
The flat sand shines as if varnished in a painting. Underfoot,
strewn, are broken bits and pieces, deep indigo mussels, whorls
of whelk, chips of purple and white wampum, hinges of quahog,
fragments of sand dollars. Nothing whole, everything
broken, washed up here, stranded. The light pours down, a rinse
of lemon on a cold plate. All of us, broken, some way
or other. All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light.
Crooker’s poems understand us. They encourage the mindfulness to momentarily close the distance between what we have and what we want. They can, in a small way, change us. They make the unkeepable promises we need to hear. Their modesty and clarity draw us into the space where fragility and strength are constant companions, and they lead us to consolations of impossible hope, and past hope to whatever remains. Here is the entire first section of “Mother Suite”:
The burning bush has given up, slipped out
of its scarlet dress, stripped down
to twig and limn, bare bones,
the architecture of itself. This is the heart
after the fire’s gone out. This is
the year’s dark dying, when my mother began
to slip from sight, as imperceptibly as the moon
shifts phases; each day a little less light. Frost’s
taken all the flowers; the landscape, colorless,
shades of ash and beige, husks and seed
pods, what remains.