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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




The work is deeply satisfying because the poems begin
in ordinary and extraordinary difficulties and find
their way to a true and hard-won light on the other side
of resentment, impatience, anger, and sorrow.  She takes
the reader with her through a thousand epiphanies
in language that is musical, plain-voiced, and richly textured.

In Radiance, Barbara Crooker’s first, and award-winning book, a “bare woods” in the Blue Ridge is imaged as “an eager congregation / waiting for the service to begin.”   We live immersed in radiance, she writes—“solid yellow fields / of mustard bright shining as the sun” (“Stand Up, Stand Up”).  We are all connected, all of us—our personalities, trials, frustrations, griefs, joys, minutiae of daily existence, in a line dance celebrating our unity. 
    Crooker’s second book, Line Dance, expresses the music of the human dance as a flow of individual trials, hurt, grief, so many kinds of losses, overcoming, acceptance, compassion, love in which we share our lives, and in sharing and the recognition of our connectedness we are uplifted.  And no one writing today makes more uplifting, light-filled poems than Crooker.  The work is deeply satisfying because the poems begin in ordinary and extraordinary difficulties and find their way to a true and hard-won light on the other side of resentment, impatience, anger, and sorrow.  She takes the reader with her through a thousand epiphanies in language that is musical, plain-voiced, and richly textured.  Reading and rereading rewards the ear with pleasures and surprises and the wisdom of spirit of one who has lived close to the bone.  As in a poem mourning a child she bore who survived one day:

    For you have entered another country,
    gotten a visa, gone to live, where we
    . . . can only be tourist.  You send us note . . ..
        The map of this country defies cartography,
        there are no expressways or shortcuts.
        Instead, you must come into the City of Grief
        as an immigrant, someone who has come to dwell,
        be ready to stay a long time. . . . And the coasts,
        too, are uncharted, rocky shoals, desolate reefs.
        Throw away the guidebooks. Enter on your knees.
        . . . .  The map of the heart has no relief.
                    (“The Geography of Grief”)

In the last line’s echo of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the theme is from the later Eliot, the submission before unalterable experience in a kind of reverent prayer that honors the difficulty of facing the fact of death, an ever-returning grief, in a posture that, as so many other poems attest, open the heart to light.
    And moving through darkness to light to entwine them in one dance is Crooker’s subject. The line dance of the title poem takes shape at the poet’s daughter’s wedding.  It gathers the bride’s family and friends, including the ex-mother-in-law—“everyone I’ve ever loved”—into a bubbling, celebratory rhythm punctuated by Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” in the background.  This opening strategy is Crooker’s characteristic move—taking subjects close to home and expanding thematically to larger humankind in a physical scene infused with spiritual motion and that brings insight. 
    Here is the line dance forming, details of the ordinary, beer wrapped in with the delicate shine of a girl’s hair:

    the groom’s sister also holding
          a bottle of beer; my youngest daughter
               at the end, hair, a glory of red ringlets,

    her arm’s around the bride’s half-sister,
           who’s giggling in embarrassment, and she’s
           connected to my childhood friend in a black  . . . .

The stretch of the dark and light gain easy access side-by-side by harking back to the common ground of American religious life and reference that is unobtrusively implicated in the (crowning) glory of women’s hair, in the black of mourning, in the ex-relatives embraced in the love of the dance and the poem.  That is not to say that Crooker does not see the spaces between people.  She does.  And she sees them as spaces we human beings have put there.  With humorous irony, her ex-husband is a guest,

             the one who didn’t want to be married any
        more, holding his soon-to-be-estranged second
    wife, the one he left us for, at arm’s length.  Start

    spreading the news: everyone I’ve ever loved
                 is here today, even the dead, raising a glass
               and dancing . . . . bubbles rising
              in a fluted glass, spilling out, running over.

The final line’s reference to the Twenty-Third Psalm (“My cup runneth over, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me . . . .”), doubled with the suggestion of music (“fluted glass”), is the grace note on which Crooker poems close.  She takes us through tribulations, large and small–death of an infant, death of parents, a son with autism, a spat with a mate, encounters with those who live and believe differently from the poet—and shows us how to emerge not only with acceptance but with a joy won in our common life of struggle and the will to join hands and move as one.
    The book is arranged in four sections, moving from grief through recovery. The first section tells of deep losses and the large hurts that accompany them, and ends with “Lemons,” an ars poetica.  Written in her characteristic anecdotal free verse, Crooker likens the poem to a lemon, in which writing and recalling her writing causes “one of the poems [to] peel / away the thin rind of memory, and there I was, back / in the maternity ward / where my first-born died.”  The memory is recomposed, the empty “white and cold” filled and enlivened by the birth of another daughter’s son: “there was Daniel, shining and . . . rinsed with light from another/ world . . . .”    While the poems early in the book work with the colors blue, white, and gray, from “Lemons” onward, light and its substantial representatives join (not dispel) the tones of grief as homely spiritual signs—lemons, honey, light, yellow sun, the moon’s milk, yellow flowers, gold, joy, bread and a  rose borne to meet a speaker at an airport gate where “the rest of your life is waiting.”  The second section expands the ars poetica and the delight of language, its potential to draw us together in tenderness (“Simile,” “Poem on a Line by Anne Sexton, ‘We are All Writing God’s Poem’”), fortitude (“Les Faux Amis,” “Climbing the Jade Mountain”), and memory (“Concerning Things That Can Be Doubled,” “This Poem”). 
    The third section might have been titled, “Openings”; for the poems there are of beginnings and beginnings again–renewals imaged in dances, from childhood incidents to the decision to keep loving fully a husband in the dark night, to “speak the language of the body, / dancing in the dark” (“”Impermanent Joy”).  These were, for me, some of the most engaging poems in the book, as they draw forth the reader’s own memories of school, church, mating, and parenting.  They draw the reader directly into the “line dance” the poet has prepared.
    The keynote for the last poems in Line Dance is expressed in the epigraph to the beautiful poem, “Ephemera”: “For whoever has despised the day of small things?—Zechariah 4:10.” While the small ordinary things and events of life are Crooker’s subject matter, the last section intensifies the honoring and celebrating of the lowly through concentration.  A cardinal, sycamore leaves, sunflowers, hummingbirds, an eggplant, her autistic son’s math equations and reading (Dick and Jane), a daughter leaving for college—these are things Crooker sets as signs of “[w]hat matters in the end . . . how well / we lived in that small space where the hyphen / goes.”

Line Dance, Barbara Crooker. Word Press, 2008. ISBN: 1933456922  $17.00

© by Rosemary Winslow


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