Barbara Crooker: Review by Janet McCann


More by Barbara Crooker (C&R Press)


MORE by Barbara Crooker



Barbara Crooker’s new book More is indeed more. Here are more of her light-bearing poems that enter the reader like some delightful foreign liqueur, even though they are usually not foreign, and that lift the mind even when their subjects are heavy—loss, transience, illness, vulnerability. How does this happen, I have often wondered, that Crooker can write of loss in such a way as to comfort?  I have put aside most poems about loss of mothers with a sigh, including my own. But Barbara’s, even amidst grief, reassure the reader. It is hard to define the substance of the reassurance. It isn’t the tired sentiment that life is worth living, nor is it a specific religious consolation that would only appeal to some readers. It is much more complex. It is somewhat more like the assertion "there is a substance in it that prevails," in Wallace Stevens’ early poem “Monocle de mon Oncle,” coupled with the sense that beauty is more powerfully affecting because of its fragility. It is enhanced by a quirky metaphysics, a sort of belief-without-borders that is rooted in a deep appreciation of the world. It is this kind of hard-won affirmation that More inhabits. The poems ask for more, more time, more experience of the earth and its wonders, and they also have more to give.

     It is amazing that Crooker can keep writing fine poems at the rate she does. Radiance, won the 2005 Word Press first book competition. Her second book, Line Dance, won the 2009 Patterson Award for literary excellence. Her work has been read on NPR by Garrison Keillor and on The Writer’s Almanac; she has read her work at the Library of Congress. She has received many honors and awards for individual poems as well as for books, and this new collection will surely bring her more.

     A powerful spirit inhabits these poems; a sharp-eyed compassionate seeker and finder. There is a spontaneous joy in them. The sparkling surface of the work creates a mixture of the physical and the metaphysical—the poems are alive with color, shapes, movement; they are filled with animals and birds; they project a hundred different qualities of light. And yet at their base is what could be thought of as an ordinary life. Crooker infuses this life with vitality that makes the reader rejoice in it, and—the special gift of these poems—in their own worlds, their particular lives.

     The book is divided into four parts. While it would be hard to give a precise theme for each of these parts, there is a kind of unity to each. Part one contains poems about desire; its epigraph from Bruce Springsteen, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart, “ says it all. Some of these poems are sheer fun, such as “Ode to Chocolate,” which provides a delightful, delicious persona for this treat:


                    ...The cold slab of a cave’s

     interior, when all the stars

     have gone to sleep.


     Chocolate strolls up to the microphone

     and plays jazz at midnight, the low slow

     Notes of a bass clarinet. Chocolate saunters

     down the runway, slouches in quaint

     boutiques; its style is je ne sais quoi.

     Chocolate stays up late and gambles,

     likes roulette. Always bets on the noir.


     Part two is more about family life and contains an outstanding sequence: the mother suite, about the loss of the speaker’s mother. Even this one has pleasure in it as the speaker puts together an Easter banquet to share with her mother at the rest home, “the last stop / before Resurrection Cemetery across the street.” The name of the cemetery is ironic, sure, but not solely. Hidden in these poems, hidden well enough not to bother anyone, is a note of transcendence. And as in many other poems, the transcendence is not secular but earthy, a strange, intense mingling of the here and the otherwhere:


     Oh holy church of the lemon, chapel of wedges,

     acidic juice, the slick shine—How the oil

     clings to your skin, lingers on your fingers,

     blesses the flesh of fish swimming in the plate,

     kisses the filling of pie on the shelf,

     remembers life is bitter,

     remembers life is sweet.


     Crooker successfully transfers the language of the holy to the world of the daily, without stripping the sacred from it.

     The third section consists of ekphrasis. These poems, based on pictures by Hopper, Renoir, Magritte, Turner, Kahlo, and others, weave our lives into the pictures.  The section is prefaced by a quotation from Van Gogh: “It is the artist’s duty to create a world that is more beautiful, simpler, and more consoling than the one we live in.” These poems are in love with color, and the speaker steps into the frame to become part of the glorious scenes. “The Open Window,” based on a Matisse painting, begins:


     I walk into this room like it’s an open air market:

     shutters, slabs of salmon baking on their terra-cotta

     bricks; windowpanes, peach and melon; trellis,

     slashes of mustard and olive.


     The speaker invites her lover to “come out of the heat of the day” so that the two of them will be entirely inside the painting, able to be alone, to make love, while “the outside world / clatters away, traffic and klaxons, the blaring of horns. / The Sun seethes behind the shutters, edible, volatile.”

     The last section reinforces the theme of the book; its brief epigraph, “All I really wanted was more,” is identified as an “anonymous, six-word memoir.”  The desire that has pulsed through his poems returns strengthened.  This section is more questioning, a shade darker. But in general, these poems like the others short-circuit fear, anxiety, envy, anger—all of the negative reactions to the troubles and obstacles of life. Though the life they describe is far from idyllic, they are shot through with a sense of joyous participation in the world. One of the poems in the last section shows this sense clearly:


          Yes was the best answer to every question.

          —Frank McCourt, Teacher Man


     So I said yes to everything, yes to the green hills

     rolling out ahead,  yes to the hayfield tied up in rolls,

     yes to the clouds, blooming like peonies in the sky’s

     blue meadow, the long tongue of the road lolling

     out before me, yes to the life of travel, yes to the other

     life at home, yes to the daisies freckling the ditch,

     to the sun pouring down on everything

     like Vermeer’s milkmaid and her endless

     jug of milk, yes to the winds that pulled the clouds

     apart like taffy, then turned them into a classroom

     of waving hands punched into fists: yes yes yes.


     Crooker’s poems say yes, and pull even the most cynical readers toward her affirmation.



Janet McCann is professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her poems have appeared in New York Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry Australia, New Letters, and a number of other literary reviews or anthologies.