Reviews & Interviews



Les Fauves , 2017
reviewed by Phebe Davidson in Tar River Poetry

Deft Ebullience

Barbara Crooker. Les Fauves. Winston-Salem, NC: C&R Press, 2017. $16, paper.

People read poetry for reasons that range from class assignments to boredom to simple love of language. That said, I more of them to read Barbara Crooker's Les Fauves, a book brimming with lines easy to read butt not to forget. Les Fauves, a term most often found in the world of paint on canvas, refers to the early twentieth painters who followed on the heels of the Impressionists— men like Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh, who valued color and line over realistic depiction— an ordering that Crooker applauds. Art, after all, speaks to art. What makes these poems particularly notable the deftness with which the poet applies her medium to the page.
The book consists of four untitled parts. The first encases the experience of seeing paintings by Matisse, art that is now, in some sense, the past, and yet fully present in the moment. "Landscape at Collioure, 1905" yields leaves “singing, a riot / of light" and, in a line that clinches the poem's end, the words of Matisse himself: "Painting is an act of belief." Of the somewhat later “Odalisque avec Anmones, 1937" Crooker reports “something blooming in my heart, anemones /spilling from their vase.” The section closes with an implicit insistence on language as memory— mysterious and compelling, no matter the tense.

Even the fog, lifting from river, that had
No language of its own, began to speak.(“Figs”)

The second begins with unabashed exuberance, the poet longing for a new heart

—full of flight, like this bird
that’s singing outside my window,
the one whose only song
Is thank you, thank you, thank you.”
(“My Heart”)

Succeeding poems serve up Pennsylvania, with its “shoofly pie, apple butter, red beet eggs . . .” (“Scrimshaw”) and the Blue Ridge Mountains (“Walking with Jesus”). A giddy mingling of scripture and Placido Domingo closes with a singularly apt riff on John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14.

So flatten my heart, three-personned God, teach me how to listen
Above the rhetoric, the verbiage, the static on the Internet, amen.

Succeeding poems engage the quiddities usage in the internet era:

At the end of the movie, the hero always
kiss’s the girl; they mash they’re lips together
in the final seen, as the credits’ role,
And the screen go’s dark.”
Readers are reminded, however, that it’s “a doggy-dog world” and that the poet, at least, will keep on going “irregardless” (“Seventeen Phrases You’re Probably Saying Wrong”). The section closes with a poem that poses, as its ultimate question, “heart or earth?” (“Live or Evil, Rats or Star”).

Part Three focuses more closely on the poet’s tools for engaging the world. Poems range from a refuge “where even the smallest scrap can somehow be of use” (“Litany of the Desk Drawer”) through “Dixon Ticonderoga,” and “Word Search” to considerations with titles like “Life” or “The Recent Dead.” With remarkable skill, Crooker leads her readers through apparent absurdities of language as we know it to revelations of great clarity:

Even in the dark, you radiate. I am a cold front, a polar low
coming down from the arctic. And you, why you,
you’re the sun.”
(“Weather Systems”)

Part Four returns the poet and her readers to Paris and its painters. As she quoted Matisse in Part One, Crooker quotes Van Gogh in Part IV: “Drawing is the root of everything” (“Ink”). Thus the book comes full circle. Ekphrasis doesn’t scare Crooker at all. Her renderings in poetic line of Matisse, Van Gogh, Braque, Bonnard and others are deftly blended with present tense everyday experience. That Crooker gifts us, along the way, with such memorable rhymes as Omaha with je ne sais quoi is something to be grateful for. Her deft ebullience has made a book with the pungency of ripe fruit and endless falls of light.



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 , 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.
“O tree…

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.


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