Reviews & Interviews
Review: More Apr, 2011
reviewed by Phebe Davidson in the Journal of New Jersey Poets:
Barbara Crooker, in More, which is her third published collection, offers readers a somewhat different orientation, presenting an ecstatic world where the sun looses “its light like a jazz / saxophone (“The Sun Lays Down Its Light”), where a stone “revels in its stoniness” as it “sings its one long song. / Something about eternity. / Something about the sea” (“Geology”), and where a mourning dove that just might be the Holy Ghost could be “calling your name, / sweet and low / You, you, you” (“Sanctus”). And as the poet reminds us, it is never enough. What we want is the same thing we wanted as children:
. . . . One more book, one more story
as if all the words weren’t already written, as if all the plots
haven’t been used, as if we didn’t know the ending already,
as if this time, we thought it could turn out differently.
Because Crooker knows the world better than its beauties might suggest, we are reminded that even while the sun is laying down its light, “My old friend and my mother begin their last days” (“The Sun Lays Down Its Light”), that a contemporary Demeter must watch her daughter fall from “her horse straight into Coma’s arms” (“Demeter), and though the daughter does eventually emerge in “a slippery rebirth” (“Demeter”), the light that comes with her is “from a different world” (“Demeter”). Because love of the world persists, even in the face of such pain, because friends and mothers die, because the daughter is unfailingly loved, the book’s central question becomes
can a person hope for, in this world of a thousand sorrows,
than a life that was made for song, than a body
sometimes able to take wing?
(“My Life as a Song Sparrow”)
The answer that Crooker supplies, both by her own work and by the ekphrastic inspiration she draws from such notables as Magritte, Matisse, Kahlo, and even Edward Hopper, lies in lives lived with art, lives that mingle close observation with a lyrical poignancy.
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,
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 talent for finding and entering such brilliance, for sharing with her readers some embodiment of the joy that entails, is outstanding in contemporary poetry.
More Feb, 2011
reviewed by Penelope Scambly Schott in Calyx
When I finished reading Barbara Crooker’s third full-length book More, I wanted more more--more of this poet’s appreciation, her humor, her firm perception of our daily world. This is poetry of long experience as a middle-class woman in our society. Any young woman could read it and learn; in fact many young women should read it, but only a woman who has gone through middle age could write it. The speaker has learned about loss, compromise, and appreciation of the joys that are still available. This poet’s world is complex, often difficult, and deeply rewarding--but not endless. The speaker doesn’t want more stuff, more glory. She wants more life. The desire for more comes with the awareness that even the best life will end.
Each of the four sections begins with a quote about the greed of the human heart.
One: Everybody’s got a hungry heart. Bruce Springsteen
Two: There is no remedy to love but to love more. Henry David Thoreau
Three: It is the artist’s duty to create a world that is more beautiful,
simpler, and more consoling than the one we live in. Vincent Van Gogh
Four: All I ever wanted was more. anonymous six word memoir
In the first poem of section one, the poet quotes Apollinaire: What isn’t given to love/ is so much wasted and goes on to ask, I wonder what I haven’t given yet. During the course of the book, the reader discovers how much the speaker has already given to love--love for the birds, beautiful food (don’t miss the poem on chocolate and how you should always bet on the noir), art, and other human beings, especially her family. This first poem ends with Always the hunger for more. Meanwhile, over the celebration lurks the shadow of loss. The cardinal sings vite, vite, as the speaker’s mother diminishes; the speaker’s daughter almost dies, and although she survives, nothing is ever quite safe again.
In “Surfer Girl,” the opening of section two, Crooker creates a variant on the ars poetica. Despite being athletic as a sofa, she seeks balance and rhythm, choosing my line like I choose these words. Indeed, rhythm, line, and language are all well chosen--vernacular but fresh and often witty. The diction is mostly ordinary speech--few unusual words, but a natural music. The poet plays with tone, often varying it in one poem. In a richness of irony and deep seriousness, she celebrates her marriage. Like the famous plum-stealer, William Carlos Williams, she starts out with humor:
Excuse me. I didn’t mean to eat
that last piece of cheesecake
when it called my name
at three am.
And she goes on to say with simple, reliable passion, that she would still choose the same man even if she could have anticipated
...the future, the damaged child,
the bodies that creak and sag. (“Excuses, Excuses”)
Section three is full of paintings, mostly by the French Impressionists, about whom Crooker wrote extensively in an earlier chapbook. Along Raoul Dufy’s “Promenade in Nice,” the waves rattled the stones like someone washing/ chain mail, or a woman searching/ for something she’d lost. What has been lost is respite from an autistic child, the chance to be a glamorous woman. For Crooker, France is travel to freedom--like slipping into a dress of silk sky.... The poem concludes: The world of travel had licked its multicolored stamps / pasted them all over my skin. (“Nice”) Here the more in question is more sensuality, more travel, and, as always, more time.
Finally, section four picks up many of the earlier themes. Crooker returns to her beloved birds as she asks what more anyone could want than a life that was made for song, than a body / sometimes able to take wing?(“My Life as a Song Sparrow”) In such a poem, even the language takes flight.
And in the final poem, the speaker concludes,
...I don’t want to change a thing...
I want the sun to run down my face like honey.
I want the wind to kiss me. I want all this to last. (“Holsteins”)
The book ends, but the writer’s enthusiastic appreciation will stay with you. These are poems of delight and affirmation. Enjoy them.
Line Dance Nov, 2010
reviewed by Jackson Wheeler in SOLO Cafe
Sometimes the sophomore effort by a prize winning poet results in a let down, with the second book reading very much like a collection of “everything that would not fit in the first book.” Barbara Crooker deftly avoids this comparison in her second book, Line Dance, with a series of poems linked to the natural world and how that world is perceived through the lenses of art, language, friendship, and the experience of being the parent of a son with autism.
The lens of art is perhaps the most obvious, conveyed by references to artists, songs, paintings, other writers, or other written work, for example the Old Testament, which provides epigraphs for some of the poems, especially, “Valentine” . Quoting from Jeremiah, Ms. Crooker selects, The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? Ms. Crooker references the heart in many of her poems and never shies away from including the reader in the interior process which makes associations with prodigious leaps of imagination. Grief and heart could be/ the same word; both have five letters, both rhyme/ with blood. In later poems she references Bruce Springsteen and the late Janis Joplin, two singers, if not intimately connected to loss and grief, know how to write and sing about the perverse and devious heart. I was also taken by the images of winter throughout this collection as though much of what is revealed in the poems is linked in some way to the knowledge that during winter and cold great life lies dormant. Her most direct ekphrastic poem, “Les Effets de Neige:. . .” references paintings of snow by Impressionists and Post-impressionists.
Other poems of reverie which are full of playful use of language are “Line” and a personal favorite, “Concerning Things That Can Be Doubled.” Crooker is often at her best with these poems which have a way of saying out loud, this may be how imagination works. These two poems provide an excellent balance to the poems sprinkled through the collection which reference her son with autism. The poem “Simile” with angry as a teakettle, also brings the reader back to the grander theme of the natural world and the human heart, in all its permutations, My pea-shaped/ heart, red as a stop sign, swells, fills with/ the helium of tenderness, thinks it might burst.
The natural world is described again and again in poems which are overtly about the subject in the title, “The Slate Grey Junco”, “Lemons”, “Peony”, “When the Acacia Blooms”, and “Hummingbird” only to reveal themselves as further reveries which bring the seasons full circle.
Crooker states, in “Euonymus alatus”, Oh, how this/ world burns and burns us, yet we are not consumed. She says it with such authority I believe her, I believe all her constructs and I believe in all the hope pronounced in her poem, “Listen,” the title being the first word of the poem which continues, I want to tell you something. The poems in this collection are very fine. When a poet of the caliber of Barbara Crooker says “Listen” I recommend that the reader sit up straight in their chair and let Ms. Crooker tell you a thing or two about the world, the human heart, how things bloom again and how although we are burned we are not consumed.