Reviews & Interviews
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.
Seminary Ridge Review May, 2011
An interview with Katy Giebenhain in Seminary Ridge Review
Barbara Crooker’s poems have been on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac 18 times.
She has published more than 600 poems in journals and anthologies and has received 26 Pushcart Prize nominations. Her books include Line Dance, More
and Radiance. She has received numerous awards, and creative writing fellowships. When I asked her to describe herself she said “While I’d primarily describe myself as a writer (poet, essayist, reviewer--all relating to poetry) I also do editing jobs and private tutorials, also on poetry, and I am a teacher. I’ve taught as an adjunct at six colleges, but now only teach at retreats, conferences, festivals and the like. My main job is as caregiver for our son with autism, who is nearly 27.”
SRR: Tell us about some things that are misunderstood or assumed about living
in a household with an autistic adult. (I’m thinking of assumptions you present
so effectively in “One Word” from “The Mother Suite,” for example.)
BC: I think it’s assumed that, somehow, we get help (because, to the outside
world, it’s too awful to think of being in this sort of situation without
help). But we don’t; it’s just the two of us, filling in for each other.
When my husband was working (he’s retired now), I juggled caring for
our two daughters plus our son, which included driving them to dance lessons,
etc. and driving him to his various therapies. And we took in three
young adults, at separate times. My husband was Director of Research for a
large multinational company, and travelled a lot. I kept writing, but my
ability to travel and give readings and workshops was pretty limited. Now
we’ve flipped, and he’s doing the primary care stuff, driving Dave to and
from work, to karate, to doctor appointments, and to choir, and I’m travelling.
I still do the food preparations--we’ve had Dave on a gluten-free (no
wheat, oats, barley, or rye) and casein-free (no dairy) diet since he was eight.
This involves a lot of planning. I don’t want him to feel deprived or left out,
so I make sure he has parallel foods to what we’re having. Breakfast, lunch,
and dinner, seven days a week.
We run a constant behavior modification system, and try not to let his
stimming and his anxieties get out of hand. I’m the one in charge of making
sure he gets his supplements and meds; my husband’s in charge of ordering
them. One of us has to be here with Dave, 24-7. I often think, if I worked
in a group home, I’d only have to do an 8-hour shift. Then the rest of the day could be mine. But that’s not going to happen, not in post-George Bush
America. Group homes still exist, but no one new is getting funded. Most
people think Dave’s still living with us by choice, but really, there’s no alternative.
If we were to throw up our hands and say this is too much, we’re
aging out, please find him a placement, he’d end up either in a homeless
shelter or in adult foster care (I get a clipping service, and the probability of abuse in foster care is high).
I will confess, in the winter, after reading all the holiday newsletters, especially the ones from our retired contemporaries who are spending their
golden years golfing and traveling, it’s a little hard. Yet we’re luckier than
many of our fellow caregivers, in that our son is not significantly “involved”
behavior-wise, and we can go out for an evening as long as we have the cell
phone on. Many of them are, quite frankly, prisoners in their own homes.
Forgive me for going on about this, but because of the current political climate, every time I hear a politician pledge to not raise taxes, I shudder.
There are, on estimate, half a million young adults with autism whose parents
are aging, and the elephant in the room is, nothing is being done to
look ahead and plan for their care. I’ve been asked, by acquaintances of “the
other political persuasion,” why we don’t just pay for group home care. The
answer is simple. The average cost of a group home is $40,000 per year,
around the same as Assisted Living. Except that Dave is likely to live at least
60 more years, bringing the price tag to, oh, 2.4 million dollars.
Another assumption is that because our family seems to function, no
one thinks we need any help (it would be lovely if someone gave us a break
now and then). One of my writing friends said once, “Gosh, I don’t know
how you do this.” And I said to him, “Hmmm. What makes you think I
have a choice?”
SRR: Can you recommend some books regarding faith and poetry to SRR readers?
Regarding disability and poetry?
BC: This is an incomplete list, but here’s what comes to mind: On faith
and poetry, journals include Image, Christianity & Literature, Sojourners,
Tiferet, The Christian Century, The Cresset, America, Windhover, Ruminate,
Perspectives, Rock & Sling and Radix. Books: Cries of the Spirit (Beacon Press), Claiming the Spirit Within (Beacon Press), Women in Praise of the Sacred (Harper Perennial), American Zen (Bottom Dog), Odd Angles of Heaven (Harold Shaw), Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude (Holy Cow! Press), Just Breathe: 101 Contemporary Odes (C&R Press), Looking for God in All the Right Places (Loyola Press), Heal Your Soul, Heal the World (Andrews McMeel), Hunger Enough: Living Spiritually in a Consumer Society (Pudding House Publications), Poets on the Psalms (Trinity University Press), Summer: A Spiritual Biography of the Season and Spring: A Spiritual
Biography of the Season (SkyLights Paths Publishers). I recommend anything
by Anne Lamott, Mary Gordon, Kathleen Norris, as well as Mary Oliver,
Jane Kenyon, Janet McCann, Jeanne Murray Walker, Fleda Brown, Gray
Jacobik, Robert Cording, Julie Spicher, Larry Thomas, Angela O’Donnell,
Alan Berecka, Marjorie Maddox, Tanya Runyan, Susanna Childress, Jill
Pelaéz Baumgaertner, Mary Crockett Hill, Julie L. Moore, Anne McCrady,
Ann Hostetler, Rod Jellema, Gary Finke, Cary Waterman and Cass Dalgliesh.
Disability and poetry books: Gravity Pulls You In (Woodbine House)
Love You to Pieces (Beacon Press) journals: Kaleidoscope, Wordgathering, Mindprints; writers: Anjie Kokan, Vicki Foreman, Sheila Black, Kyra Anderson,Suzanne Kamata, Brett Lott, Grey Brown, Rebecca Foust and Anne Barnhill (fiction and memoir).
SRR: What do you wish pastors, chaplains, and church leaders were more
aware of in their communication with disabled persons and their families?
BC: Tolerance and compassion. One of the children Dave was in Project
Connect with (a preschool for disabled children) went through classes for
his First Holy Communion. When the big day came, he was told by the
priest that he could take his first communion before or after the main service,
but not with his class, so as “not to spoil it” for the other children and
their families. Of course, those parents walked out the door, and never came
back. We’ve come a long way, but not quite far enough, from the days when
special education students were segregated and put in separate classrooms,
often a broom closet or a basement. With the Inclusion model, our children
are finally receiving FAPEs (Free and Appropriate Public Educations) side
by side with their non-disabled peers. Our little church (St. John’s, Fogelsville, ELCA) did fully include Dave in Sunday School, etc. One Sunday, they’d invited a black gospel choir from Reading, PA, to be our guest musicians. The choir brought along family and friends, and it was a lot of fun to see our quiet Pennsylvania German congregation respond to the shout-outs during the sermon (“Tell it!” “Oh, yes,Lord”). When they were leaving, the entourage went through the congregation, shaking hands and greeting everyone. I was concerned that Dave would appear to be rude, so I mentioned to the man clasping my hand that he loved the music, but he didn’t talk. The man’s immediate response was,“That’s all right, sister, Jesus loves him anyway.” At that point in our journey, Dave was still in an IU segregated class, and I was fighting to get him returned to our home district. Those words were exactly what I needed to hear, and they kept me going, a long, long time. This kind of affirmation is surely something pastors etc. could easily provide. When Dave was a senior in high school, he wanted to go to the prom, along with a group of kids from his learning support home room. His teaching assistant volunteered to go with him (giving up a Saturday night), just in case he needed prompting or re-directing. Instead, when we picked him up, she said, “I really wasn’t needed.” The other kids, with no teacher prodding them, no one’s mom directing them, came over and asked him to dance. All night long. Some of them, I know, were in Sunday School with him. If this wasn’t the Gospel in action, then I don’t know what is. . . .
Now, as a young adult, he continues to be odd. He marches to a different
drum, but he sings in the church choir and participates in church life.
Yes, he sometimes answers the pastor’s rhetorical questions (she’s a good
sport about this), and yes, he’s sometimes inappropriate, but if anyone ever
exemplified the pure in heart, he’d be it. He’s one of the few in the congregation who faithfully uses the World Hunger envelope on the first of every
month. We started to tell him he didn’t make enough money to do this, but
then we thought again. . .
Another answer to this question would be treat parishioners with disabilities
like everyone else, while at the same time, being sensitive to their
differences. I’m also a mother who has lost a child, and one of the things
that keeps coming up in the literature is to not forget. When well-meaning
outsiders (pastors, neighbors, etc.), out of kindness, refrain from mentioning
the deceased child, it’s like losing her twice. The intent is to try and
smooth over a painful memory, but we never forget, and we don’t want to
forget. When people act as if they never existed, then they truly are gone.
SRR: When you write about loss and shock and the chronic inconveniences
some of us deal with on a daily basis, do you decide to have a certain attitude
before you start? Please say something about your writing process. (I’m thinking
about how pastors approach sermon writing in the midst of tragedy, or in the opposite direction, when they choose to tackle difficult yet undramatic issues.) Your powerful, matter-of-fact “Firstborn” comes to mind for the first part of the question; “In the Middle” does for the second part of the question in the way it tackles the knowledge of one’s place in the world. Lack of drama carries its own consequences.
BC: I think first of all, I never try and write about anything. In other
words, I’m not steering the sled. I try and let the poem itself choose its path.
Robert Frost said, “If you know where a poem is going, start there,” and I
think he’s right. I also think you need distance, when dealing with tragedy,
with things where there is no resolution, no easy answers. I had maybe 35
years to process my experience before writing this poem. It’s not the first
one that I’ve done on that great loss, and it probably isn’t the last.
One of poetry’s tasks, I think, is that of bearing witness, and so part of
my aim, in writing about this, is to say to other women, “I lived through
this. I can’t tell you how you’re going to do this, only that it’s possible.”
Sometimes, knowing that we are not alone, that others have suffered
equally, helps make the unbearable bearable.
Back to the genesis of the poem--I was in a peer writing workshop
with 5 or 6 other women. We’d done this several times, knew each other’s
work, and life stories. We were each taking turns leading prompts, and this
one was to take something in our possession and put it in the center of the
circle, after we told a story about why it was significant. The ring that
Wanda took off her finger belonged to her son, who was a college student
and a good swimmer, but who somehow drowned swimming laps one night
at school. I immediately knew I had to take it, and write about it, even
though the little voice in the back of my head (the one we writing teachers
try to banish from the classroom) was saying, “You’ve written about this before,
you need to write about something different.” Looking at the ring took
me to round images, like the sun, but also to circles and zeroes.
The sun came up, as it always does,
the next morning, its pale gold yolk
bleeding into the white room.
I remember how cold I was,
and how young, so thin,
my wedding ring rattled
on my finger. How the tea
the nurse brought
broke in waves on the rim
of the cup, spilled over
in the saucer; how nothing
could contain my tears.
Three days later, I left
in a wheelchair,
with nothing in my arms.
The center of this gold ring
is a zero. The horizon,
where the sun broke through,
is no longer a straight line,
but a circle. It all comes back
(First published in Calyx; reprinted with permission of the author.)
I could never have imagined the ending of this poem before I wrote it. I
thought (oh, so foolishly) that I had achieved “closure.” Instead, the poem
reminded me that “it all comes back / to you,” (my lost child) and that there
is a circle that is, indeed, unbroken. That she’s not a forgotten part of my
life. And that there are others who might read my words and also have
someone in their life who’s always missing. The ring is both a solid circle,
and the emptiness within.
But choosing the matter-of-fact voice? No. It chose me. One thing I’m
sure I was considering was that the subject is a dangerous one, in poetry, in
that it could be seen as sentimental. So I hope that with the restrained voice
you get a sense of the great grief behind it, one that’s being reined in.
As far as “In the Middle” goes, I don’t remember what got me started,
but you’ve definitely got your finger on its pulse, “the knowledge of one’s
place in the world.” It might have been something as simple as realizing how
wonderful it was/is to simply be, to lie in the hammock (which we bought
as a therapeutic tool for our son--lying in a hammock helps to straighten
out the proprioceptor system--but which became a wonderful therapeutic
tool for us, as well). Then I started noticing other nets, webs, connections.
Again, I let the poem lead me on. One other thing I’d like to say about this
poem is its word choice. To create a graceful line, I had to, um, kill off my
mother ahead of time. (She read the poem, and laughed when I apologized.)
To say “Our children almost grown, / three-quarters of our parents gone” or
“your parents and my father gone,” would have thrown off the rhythm, and
been overly wordy.
Less is always more, I tell my writing students, and this could be applied
to sermon writing, too. Just think of me, the parishioner in the back,
with my red pencil waving, “Cut, cut, cut!” Poetry attempts to do the most
with the least words possible, so think about using brevity and compression
as prose tools, too.
SRR: Thank you for saying this! I couldn’t agree more. Do you have any observations or opinions about how the use of language matters for caregivers? For those who are ill themselves? Reading poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction does open us up to a larger vocabulary, and useful metaphors.(I’m reaching back to the conversation with Paul Steinke here.) Would you agree with this? Why do you think it is beneficial for chaplains and pastors and those in social ministry organizations to read poetry?
BC: My observation on the use of language is that there’s a strong preference
for “people-first” language--ie., a person with autism, rather than an
autistic person (although it doesn’t bother me as much as it does others).
Certainly a woman with breast cancer (I have a chapbook of poems on this)
wants to be, first and foremost, herself, a woman, not someone defined by
her cancer. There’s a feeling in the disability community that words like
“handicapped” (with its connotations of begging, going “cap in hand”) and
“retarded” (the “r” word) should be retired, and I do agree with that. I think
we all want and need to be careful of labels, and how they can be used to
create “the other.”
I would absolutely agree that poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction
open us up to the power of metaphor and the beauty of words. All of the
parables are, of course, metaphors. My scientist husband will often say, after
reading some poems, “Why can’t people just say what they mean,” but I
think when you do that, readers don’t absorb the lesson. You need a dialogue,
which metaphor creates; you need to involve your listeners/audience.
Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” but that washed over everyone’s head.
When He told the parable about the Good Samaritan, then we “got it.” (Although
sometimes I wonder about this right now, where we have such hatred
coming out of the religious right against our gay neighbors, our neighbors
who don’t hold the right papers (immigrants), and yes, our neighbors
with disabilities, too. This latter part comes in the form of sneering about
“entitlement programs.” If we don’t keep in mind these words from
Matthew, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these,
you did it not to me,” then where are we, as a people? Too bad the double
negative makes this a bit hard to understand; Jesus is saying, if you take
away health care from those who can’t afford, you’re turning me away, too.)
Finally (going back to the main question), I believe it’s beneficial for
everyone to read more poetry, especially for those on life’s spiritual paths. I
can think of nothing that makes me happier than to hear, after a reading,
“Gee, I just came out because so-and-so dragged me. I didn’t think I liked
poetry. But that was terrific. It really spoke to me.”
SRR: Has poetry influenced the way you articulate questions about and experiencesof faith?
BC: I think, first of all, most of us would agree that expressing the ineffable
is difficult. So poetry gives me both a medium to work in, and a vocabulary
to work with. For me, the act of creation is its own kind of holiness. Many
writers talk about “the muse” as their source; I think we can give it another
name: The Holy Spirit. It’s the voice I try to listen to, when I can quiet the
chatter of my own monkey mind, and although I can only approximate
where it comes from, it’s the deeper well from which I’m drawing cool
water. I’m also very much searching for ways to find the sacred in the diurnal,
the every day. The poem “Sanctus,” I hope, illustrates this.
A goldfinch, bright as a grace note, has landed
on a branch across the creek that mutters and murmurs
to itself as it rushes on, always in a hurry.
The ee oh lay of a wood thrush echoes from deep
in the forest, someplace green. In paintings,
the Holy Ghost usually takes the form of a stylized
dove, its whiteness a blaze of purity. But what if
it’s really a mourning dove, ordinary as daylight
in its old coat, nothing you’d ever notice.
When he rises from the creek and the light flares
behind, his tail is edged in white scallops,
shining. And when he opens his beak,
isn’t he calling your name,
sweet and low, You, you, you?
First published in Rock & Sling, where it was a finalist for the Virginia
Brendemuehl Prize. Both “Sanctus” and “Firstborn” appear in Crooker’s collection
More by C&R Press.
SRR: What parting, poetry-related advice can you give us?
BC: That sometimes I, too, dislike it, religious poetry, that is (to misquote
Marianne Moore). I dislike it for the same reason some sermons put me to
sleep, that they simply retell scripture, albeit in slightly different words.
What I’m looking for in contemporary spiritual poetry is work that looks at
sense of slant. I’m looking for words to help me be a person of God in a secular
world, words that will give me hope in a time of darkness, words that will fan the fires of faith that sometimes flicker dimly. And so I’m just as much a reader of poetry as I am a writer, and I hope that what I’ve written the familiar words or stories in a new light, from a different angle, with a
sense of slant. I’m looking for words to help me be a person of God in a secular
world, words that will give me hope in a time of darkness, words that
will fan the fires of faith that sometimes flicker dimly. And so I’m just as
much a reader of poetry as I am a writer, and I hope that what I’ve written
here will inspire others to read more poetry, too.
The Upper Case May, 2011
The Not-so-Secret-Life-of-Metaphor by Shirley Stevens
In his latest book I is an Other, James Geary explores metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world. He maintains that metaphor breaks up common relationships and reorganizes uncommon combinations. He suggests that metaphor makes the mind into a snow globe—most beautiful, most interesting, and most itself when it is, as Elvis said, “all shook up.”
The author invites us to consider another translation of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, which is traditionally translated, “I think; therefore, I am.” Geary looks at the etymology of cogito, which comes from agitare, the root of the word “agitate.” Geary quotes Wyndham Lewis: “Laughter is the mind sneezing.” Have you ever considered laughter this way?
Calling language “fossil poetry,” Geary suggests that we utter about six metaphors a minute. We don’t realize that metaphors are a part of our everyday lives. We use them unconsciously, as when we say, “I see what you mean.” We do not literally see anything, but we convey that we understand someone.
Metaphors are active in proverbs and parables. Whey they are overused, they become clichés like “talk in circles” or “you took the words right out of my mouth.” But when they are fresh, they can make us see in a new way, as in the Chinese proverb “It is hard to dismount from a tiger.”
The poet Wallace Stevens reminds us that metaphor creates a new reality. The novelist George Eliot adds, “We seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying something else.”
Geary suggests that metaphor creates a new kind of logic. Poets and non-poets alike think about the world in fluid ways. Metaphor serves as a bridge between the strange and the familiar. When John Donne wrote, “No man is an island,” he obviously knew that no human is a land mass. But the poet wanted us to have another frame of reference and consider the connection between the individual and society.
We might profit from examining metaphors in several poems by one poet, Barbara Crooker. In her poem “Listen,” Barbara writes:
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in your mouth, cut hay in your nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
and then it blooms again.
List the metaphors Barbara uses. I count ten, and I may have missed one.
What is the effect of some of her metaphors? The poet says she can’t tell us what prayer is and then proceeds to show us in the meadow’s breath, the blue coal of life, and the cardinals’ red song dancing in our blood. Will we look at the moon in the same way after we have considered its blossoming into a peony then shrinking to a sliver of garlic?
Barbara ends her poem “Climbing the Jade Mountain” with the lines:
When nights overtake us,
we lie down in a dry
river bed, with a stone
for a pillow. Morning
draws her curtains.
We begin again.
The poet writes about being on a journey and lying down in a river bed (a metaphor). She has a stone for a pillow. We think of Jacob, who also slept with a stone for a pillow. The speaker wakes as “Morning draws her curtains.” In this image, the speaker addresses a new beginning.
In a third poem, “Writer’s Colony, Spring,” Crooker concludes:
Here, let the song rise in my
throat, come up from underground limestone caverns, like
the small warbling streams of the Shenandoah, may they run
in rivulets, cascades of melody, whole laughing brooks
of words, until you cannot tell the singer from the song.
As we read these words aloud, we feel the song streaming in rivulets, cascades, and laughing brooks of words. Surely metaphor helps us to connect singer and song.