Reviews & Interviews
Gold , 2015
Some poems are crafted to be explicated by scholars. Others are written to spool easily off our tongues, expressing our daily emotions. There is a via media: poems that express ordinary experiences, but with language that surprises and delights, opening us to new ways of thinking about those experiences. Barbara Crooker's book Gold, is just such poetry.
The cover hints as much. Its chocolate brown foregrounds a mother tenderly holding her child. Warm colors are used for the mother and child: red-blonde hair, headscarf designs of deep red, violet, and green; rosy cheeks and lips; tousled charcoal curls. The colors draw us into the mother's loving embrace just as Cooker's poems draw us into the tenderness of human relationships, the admiration of the many hues of nature, and a deep appreciation for the everyday experiences of life.
A reader does not need to be a scholar to understand the topic of many of the poems in the first two sections of the book: Crooker's loss of her mother to cancer. A number of the poems chronicle Crooker's experiences from first hearing her mother's diagnosis, through long days of nursing, and on after her mother's death. "On the Day of Her Diagnosis" expresses the irony that disease may first appear as beauty: "The small pearl I'd seen floating / in the warm water of her breast // was cancer, a word that hissed / in the ear like fat in a pan // or the breath of a snake." (p. 14) And anyone who has lost a loved one can identify with the poem "Ashes": "all I wanted / to do was gather up every gritty particle, / every chip of bone, ten mix them with my bare / hands, using sand and mud, saliva and tears, / and bring her back" (p. 26). Although none of the poems in the latter sections deals directly with Crooker's mother's illness and death, the book continues the trajectory--the shape--of sorrow. And so, among poems on topics as disparate as playing Monopoly or traveling to Ireland, Crooker's grief reemerges, just as it does for all of us who must carry on the task of living after a loss.
Prominent in Crooker's book is the theme of nature's beauty, colors, and transience. We see it in the title poem: "The goldenrod's tarnished and dull, gone to rust / as the Dow Jones plummets like the mercury / on a January night." (p. 61). Food also features in a number of poems, at times tellingly personified, including this delightful description of donuts in the poem "In Praise of Dying": "their greasy faces shining through brown // paper bags." (p. 23). Other poems describe experiences familiar to many: stargazing, celebrating the Fourth of July, maintaining--and appreciating--a long-term marriage, even lying awake with insomnia, as in "Invoice": "Tonight, // the moon's a sliver of lemon in a cup of espresso, / and 'm too jittery to sleep." (p. 3).
Crooker's ability to write accessibly combines with her impressive facility to write ekphrastic poetry. Ten of the fifty-five poems are ekphrstic--written in response to another work of art. It takes a skillful poet to describe an artwork vividly enough for the reader to "see," and yet succinctly enough that the point of the poem is not overshadowed by description. Crooker is able to do this. The first few lines of "Deauville, l Paddock" provide an example: "This house, pink stucco, could be made of meringue, / a confection beaten out of egg white and light. If I bit / into it, sugar would melt on my tongue." (p. 56). We are able not only to see the painting, but also to get a hint of the sensuality and sense of impermanence that the poem explores.
Crooker's use of poetic elements like enjambment and alliteration would also be worth exploring, but I would rather return to the idea of the shape of the book. The first poem, "Invoice," shows us nature's beauty but reminds us that we must pay a price for life: "one day too soon [we'll] sleep alone. . . .//there's so much death." (p. 3). The poems that follow spell out the details, and as life moves on after loss, so does the book. Until we arrive at the closing poem, "Zucchini"--the letter Z, which provides a fitting ending. Here, Crooker states, "we're at the end of the line, / a row of zeros" (p. 68). Yet, the autumn garden reveals one forgotten zucchini "lurking in the leaves: / an enormous baseball bat . . . waiting / patiently for the seasons to whirl / around again." (p. 69) And so we are returned imaginatively to the cover of the book: the mother holding her child. We know the child will grow up to hold the mother and then grieve her passing, but we know, too, that this will not be the end. Always, there will be the possibility of a hidden zucchini, and spring will come with "the sun, ascending / . . .rosy in the east" 9p. 69).
~written by Sheryl Slocum for the Anglican Theological Review.
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.