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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Barbara Crooker's First Book of Poetry




Crooker has an extraordinary ear for the sounds
of words. The reader’s ear leaps up in delight
at the alliteration, assonance, consonance,
and near rhymes . . .

While Radiance is Barbara Crooker’s first full-length book, it is clearly the work of a seasoned poet who has done the hard work of mastering her craft. Crooker writes in free verse that proves T. S. Eliot’s contention that vers libre is not free at all to the poet “who wants to do a good job.” This poet knows how to make poetry sing. And she knows how to arrange individual poems into a single work of art as unified and stunning as the painting that graces the cover of her book.
    Crooker skillfully divides her fifty poems into six sections. In each of the first four sections, a season of the year serves as a subtle backdrop to the various themes which dance their way throughout the book. This structure creates an underlying tension between background and foreground; as the seasons, beginning with fall, move chronologically forward, the poet creates a counter-movement by shifting back and forth in time. The last two sections focus on the seasons of a woman’s life. Here, too, the poet moves back and forth between the past and present, mixing poems about adolescence with others about marriage, motherhood, and menopause. The collection gains an additional layer of complexity with the ongoing alternation between darkness and light, grief and joy.
    Time functions not only as part of the structural plan but also as theme. Crooker keeps us constantly aware of the presence of Time. In “Quiscalus Quiscula” the speaker, observing grackles, asks, “Is the purpose for their darkness to fly against / the dogwoods, remind us that night is always / bearing down? Time beats its blueblack wings. . . .” A number of poems look backward to more carefree days of innocence. In “The Fifties” “Time was a jarful of pennies” as the speaker and her young friends cut out paper dolls. In “Junior High, Home Economics” these girls “couldn’t imagine a future that didn’t fit / the pattern, thought there was nothing / [they] couldn’t alter, darn, or patch, / somehow make right.” Interspersed among such poems are those in which the mature speaker confronts the hard times adulthood brings — the death of a daughter at birth, a son with autism, an aging and ailing mother. By strategically staggering the poems, the poet wisely sacrifices narrative development and gains dramatic irony. To the poems of innocence, the reader brings a knowledge the young speaker did not have: the mature speaker will experience childbirth and come to know that children are sometimes as fragile as those paper dolls she once played with.
    As Crooker plays past and present off each other, she also moves back and forth between two worlds. There’s the world of home with its domestic concerns of cooking, cleaning, raising children, loving her husband. While this is clearly a place of much joy, it is also a place of grief and restrictions. “Autism Poem: The Grid” grippingly uses the son’s fascination with grids as an emblem for the restrictions of the speaker’s life:

            A black and yellow spider hangs motionless in its web,
            and my son, who is eleven and doesn’t talk, sits
            on a patch of grass by the perennial border, watching.
            What does he see in his world, where geometry
            is more beautiful than a human face?
            Given chalk, he draws shapes on the driveway:
            pentagons, hexagons, rectangles, squares.
            The spider’s web is a grid,
            transecting the garden in equal parts.

    Juxtaposed to this world is the outside one — Virginia, with its Blue Ridge Mountains, and beyond that, Paris with its history, its art, its cuisine. In “Impressionism” the speaker longs for this other world as she finds herself at “the end of a difficult year, / horror after horror on the news, my mother’s life / decreasing breath by suffering breath. Too much death / for anyone to take in, and what comes next? The borders / of the world constrict, tighten. France now seems / like an impossible dream, as far away as the stars.” But she does periodically escape to Paris. Asked by a friend, in “Nocturne in Blue,” to bring back a stone, the speaker thinks of all she’d bring back if only she could:

            twilight longings, a handful of crushed lilacs
            from the bar at the Closerie, some lavender de Provence,
            Odilon Redon’s chalky mauves, a jazz piano playing the blues,
            Mood Indigo; just a condensation of blue,
            distilled in a small glass bottle with a stopper,
            as if it came from an expensive parfumerie,
            musk of the centuries, the gathering dusk,
            a hedge against night, the world that will end.

    Backed against each other, both worlds are clarified and intensified. This is not a simple division between one world good and the other bad. Both contain a landscape and people the speaker loves. In poem after poem, Crooker includes the physical terrain’s birds — grackles, geese, cardinals, hawks — and its flowers — daffodils, forsythia, lilacs, peonies. Wherever she is, she is acutely alert to and hungry for the beauty the earth yields: its “green grass, blue hills, yellow fields of mustard,” its “copper-colored woods,” “a wheat field / turning ochre and amber, every awn and arista shouting sun! / sun! sun!,” “evening’s violet cashmere,” and November’s “plum clouded sunsets.”
    Other poems ache for the landscape of the body. In “Away in Virginia, I See a Mustard Field and Think of You,” the speaker misses her husband who is back home:

                        the blue hills are like the shoulders and slopes
            of your back as you sleep. Often, I slip a hand under
            your body to anchor myself to this earth.

            I think of us driving narrow roads in France, under
            a tunnel of sycamores, my hair blowing in the hot wind,
            opera washing out of the radio, loud. We are feeding
            each other cherries from a white paper sack.


                        I miss your underwear, soft from a thousand
            washings, the socks you still wear from a store
            out of business thirty years. I love to smell your sweat
            after mowing grass or hauling wood; I miss the weight
            on your side of the bed.

    Crooker also harbors a deep love for language. The reader gets the impression that this poet is always listening, keenly aware of the poetic potential of words. This reverence for language takes on ironic poignancy when we recall the son’s difficulties with language. One notable technique is the folding in of others’ words. In “The Gyre” we hear from Monet who wrote, “These landscapes of water / and reflections have become an obsession for me.” Then we hear from the “compulsive son” who “asks questions without answers / ad infinitum in an endless loop: ‘What time is 12 o’clock / midnight? When is it Saturday? Where is Hurricane / Floyd? Will you marry me all the time?’” In “Stand Up, Stand Up,” one of the collection’s strongest poems, words from radio sermons are interspersed with the speaker’s thoughts as she drives through the Blue Ridge Mountains:

            I believe in miracles; I’m a miracle myself.
            On either side of the Interstate (I want to find, find the road
            that leads to Heaven’s door), newly green fields, brown & white
            cows, the long stretch of the Blue Ridge, and solid yellow fields
            of mustard bright shining as the sun. And all along the highway,
            more and more redbuds, as if God’s hand had scribbled in fuchsia
            along the brown bark, a loud shout of gladness, joy in my rocky,
            rocky heart.

    “Books Reviewed in The New York Times, Sunday, June 9, 2002,” is built out of a series of book titles. How appropriate, the reader thinks, for a poem about a girlhood spent in libraries, how clever and charming. Then Crooker delivers her power punch: “Years later, my first child / was born, then died, on her due date. Books were my salvation. / Nothing Remains the Same. Walk Through Darkness.”
    Another of Crooker’s many gifts is her facility with figurative language. Although metaphors and similes are the staples of poetry, Crooker’s consistently surprise and delight. We have “Two stubborn people . . . stuck in the old sock of marriage,” a “sky like a pale silk dress,” air “soft / as a well-washed shirt on your arms,” a grackle’s eyes that “glint like the clasp of a satin purse,” “evening’s melancholy shawl,” the world “reduced to a black flag / of pain,” and a “wild blue heart of longing.” “Vegetable Love,” a praise poem written in language as lush as the garden it describes, comes alive with its figures. Carrots become “gold mined from the earth’s tight purse,” zucchini are “green torpedoes,” beets are “the dark blood of the earth,” and peas rest “in their delicate slippers, / little green boats, a string of beads.” Personification infuses additional life into this garden. Basil is “nuzzled / by fumbling bees drunk on the sun,” while leaves are busy “passing secrets and gossip, making assignations.” All are “earth’s voluptuaries.”
    Crooker is a poet who pays careful attention to diction, who agrees with Twain that the “difference between any word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Always searching for the best words, never settling for the easy ones, she gives us words like “musical olio,” “atavistic shiver,” “equinox,” “rhizomes,” “Fauvism / of spring,” “amplitude of flesh,” and “plum duff.” She sprinkles her collection with French words: “petit déjeuner,” “fin de siècle,” “crêpe de Chine,” “vin rouge.” And into the midst of such music, she adds the vocabulary of autism: “hyperlexic,” “echolalic,” “flicks,” and “stims.”
    Crooker has an extraordinary ear for the sounds of words. The reader’s ear leaps up in delight at the alliteration, assonance, consonance, and near rhymes in lines such as these from “Possibly”:

            When I left Pennsylvania, spring was still scuffing her feet,
            scarf muffled around her neck, duffle coat buttoned up tight,
            the ground still hard as a calculus textbook, grass infinite
            shades of dun and tan, the scruffy pelt of something dead
            by the road, trees and branches bare.

    And what foot could resist tapping out these lines from “A Woman Is Pegging Wash on the Line”: “She is bending over the willow basket, / pegging up sock sock undershirt / sock sock boxers / sock sock bra. / She knows the use of the singing line / sure as any fly fisher.” And so, too, does this poet.
    Reading this collection, the reader is again and again struck by its abundance, its hard-won joy. While acknowledging life’s uncertainty, fragility, and limitations, Crooker writes with an eye sensitive to the beauty in her two worlds and an ear attuned to the joyful noises of language. Perhaps the first poem in the book, “All That Is Glorious Around Us,” should have the last word here:

                          . . . everything glorious is around
            us already: black and blue graffiti shining in the rain’s
            bright glaze, the small rainbows of oil on the pavement,
            where the last car to park has left its mark on the glistening
            street, this radiant world.

Crooker, Barbara. Radiance. Cincinnati, Ohio: Word Press, 2005. ISBN: 1-932339-91-4  $17.00


© by Diane Lockward


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