Janet McCann on Barbara Crooker



Gold by Barbara Crooker. Cascade Books: an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013.

 

The title of this book evokes Robert Frost even before you open the book and find him:  "Nothing gold can stay." These are painful, beautiful, physical poems of loss and slow recovery. The colors and tastes burst from the poems, yet the narrative for much of the book is the decline and death of the mother, and the daughter's finding her way in her new state of being "unmothered." Even her characteristic food imagery takes its tone from the loss. Talking about tomatoes in late summer, she writes that

 

nothing beats this sweetness in August,

hot and heavy with juice and seeds.  Slice

them into rounds, shuffle with mozzarella,

add basil's anise nip, drizzle with the kiss

of olio di oliva, a dark splash of balsamic,

the sprinkled grit of sea salt. The circles ring the plate,

diminishing O's. We know the party's almost over,

the sun's packing its bags. Listen to the crows

outside the cold window: gone gone gone.

 

Crooker's pictures glow like the Impressionists' works, and her snapshot-insights stick in the reader's mind still associated with the images that engendered them. This is true in these poems also, and if the loss of the mother always lurks in the background, the sense of heightened awareness always created by Crooker's poems works with it to explore final questions. The issue seems to be: being with someone loved, in their presence, is so physical. What can the relationship be like after the physical presence is gone? Is there any other kind of presence? These poems ask. The answers are equivocal and exploratory. "Pistachios" gives a good example. It concludes this way:

 

The sun,

at day's end, loves slipping behind the horizon,

sometimes flashing green. The way this small nut

slips perfectly back into its shell, although you

can never quite click the lid, tuck in the world's

sorrows, make it stick tight, once the hinge

is broken, and the crack that's in everything

has let the light back in.

 

This book is divided into four numbered sections. Most of the poems are free verse, with a few in traditional or adapted forms. The titles help communicate the dual emotional landscape portrayed in the collection: On the one hand is the loss: "A Woman Is Her Mother. That's the Main Thing," "In Praise of Dying," "The Table My Mother's Brother Kept," "My Mother's Body Knits itself into a Nest of Pain."  On the other hand, something permanent remains, and the world is still lush: ""Gold," "Zucchini," "Pistachios," "Ambrosia."

 

Crooker is known for the sensory surface of her poems; her world has brighter colors and vibrant tastes. Synesthesia or simply the coupling of color and taste enriches her work. Her travel poems are delectable. Yet the vivid presence of the changing surface of the world also reminds us that nothing lasts. "Death is the mother of beauty," Wallace Stevens says, and readers ponder over what that means. It may mean simply that if things did not wax and wane in cycles we would not be aware of how precious they are. It is our desire that determines value. Desire is hunger, and in Crooker's poems, life is consumed. The poems are filled with food, whether the food is the symbolic center of a relationship, a way of communicating, a cherished memory, or a trope for something else. The food imagery underscores the transience of all things, yet there is the knowledge that as experience is consumed, it transforms the speaker. To live fully is to eat life up. Of a Dufy painting, she says, "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 . . . ."

 

As in earlier collections, light is a presence too, drenching the world in a natural spirituality that cannot be categorized. If there is deity here, it is a kind of immanent presence in the wealth of the world. It seems to link up with a different series of images in this collection, which I think of as the particulate. There are stones, pebbles, sand, the mother's ashes, salt, even stars—and salt represented as stars. A rich poem about maternal links, "Salt," links salt, the mother's ashes, DNA, eggs in ovaries. It concludes:

 

On the blue canister in my kitchen, there's

a little girl standing in the rain in a yellow dress,

the same can of salt under her arm, open, running out,

like those Dutch interiors repeating themselves

in convex mirrors repeating like the bits of DNA

in molecules that become the coins in our ovaries' purse,

doled out month by month, drawn by the moon. Long ago,

someone tipped some salt on a black skillet,

and decided to call that spillage "stars."

 

Whether she intends a kind of pervasive feminine spirituality or not, the images of the particulate seem to suggest an infinity, a coherence, or a totality of parts beyond our limited understanding.

 

Crooker is a poet to return to, as her strikingly original images and connections delight, inspire, and console. Every reading opens new possibilities.





Janet McCann's most recent collection is Emily's Dress (Pecan Grove Press, 2004).  Her poems appear in Kansas Quarterly, Parnassus, Nimrod, Sou'wester, New York Quarterly, Tendril, Poetry Australia, and recently in Ted Kooser's column.  She has co-edited two anthologies, Odd Angles Of Heaven (1994) and Place Of Passage (Story Line, 2000).  Her honors include and NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and wins of chapbook contests sponsored by Pudding Publications, Chimera Connections, and Franciscan University Press.  She has taught at Texas A&M University since 1969.  Her reviews have appeared in Women's Literature, Christianity and Literature, and The Wallace Stevens Journal










                                    

 

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