Barbara Crooker

            Philadelphia, 2007

We sat at the café like Renoir's models, letting the sun daub us
with licks of light, flicks of a sable brush.  The way your fingertips
had grazed my cheek last night, painted it peach and cream.  
Now we are looking at a painting of dahlias, a diagonal tumble
of red, gold, white, but I am back in that garden in St. Germain-en-Laye,
only now it's twilight that's brushing our arms violet and mauve.  
We're having dinner, and this is a luxe group, women in understated
black sheaths, pearls on slender necks, expensive shawls flung
carelessly over bare white arms.  We're in a different life,
an expense account, with a couple from headquarters
for whom this is a matter of course.  She checks her cell phone,
rattles her fingernails impatiently between courses.
Her husband urges me to try the foie gras, let its silky unctuousness
melt on the crisp toast, sip the golden notes of the sweet aperitif
that cuts through the richness, enhances the tone.  The garden
in twilight:  enormous globe thistles, heavy mauve cabbage roses,
the scents of exquisite perfumes. . . . And later, in our small
hotel, you with your flurries of deft little brush strokes on the linen
of my skin. . . .  The rhythm, as we rowed our way towards shore,
like the girls in the skiff in this painting in their bright summer
dresses and jaunty hats.  You dip your oar in the shimmering
water again and again, until the canvas is streaked with brilliant
slashes of red/yellow/orange, blue/dark blue/green, a wave
collapsing on the rocky shore, then dissolving into itself
in foam, vapor, light.


So, we're in the middle of la belle France, at la musée de la Dentelle, the lace museum in Alençon, because I wanted to see the kind of lace I lied about when I wrote up my first wedding for the local newspaper.  I didn't know la dentelle d'Alençon from la dentelle de Bruges, or my ass from a hole in the ground; there is no shade of green—lime, grass, chartreuse—green enough to describe me back then.  Now, forty years later—can that be—I'm here with husband number two, the good one, the chemist, who never read a poem in his life until he met me, and who's only going to this museum because there's a promise of lunch at the end and he's hoping for something good, maybe with a few frites on the side.  But he's a good sport and a scientist to boot, so he follows the documentary on lace making in all ten of its intricate stages, over, under, around and through the maquette, the parchment tracings, the transfers of design, the threads that go out in all directions, don't seem to make a pattern, but, in the end, under the discerning eye of the senior lacemaker, become a many-petalled rose that will bloom forever at the throat of a beautiful woman.  He turns and looks at me and says, oh, now I get it, that's how you make a poem.


We were sitting on the rocks, my husband and son,
down by the Loyalsock Creek, staying in a stone cabin

built by the CCC.  Back at home, my mother cannot sleep—
her recliner's too small, the hospital bed's

too hard; like Goldilocks in the bears' cottage, nothing
is just right.  Nothing will ever be just right again, as her body

fails and fails some more.  Up on a ridge above the Loyalsock,
the foliage is at the peak of autumn’s fire.  Even the creek water

burns red, orange, yellow.  The cell phone in my pocket
in case hospice calls thumps against my thigh.

It's one of those brilliant blue days you think should last forever,
the trees glowing redder, starry asters lining the rocky path.

Back in the cabin, pork and cranberries have been slowly cooking all day.
I boil up wild rice, add toasted pine nuts and golden raisins.  At home,

my mother lifts a bowl, fills her nebulizer, inhaling the hot steam,
breathes again more easily for a little while. We throw more wood

in the black iron stove, whose hunger
is insatiable, whose belly can never be filled.


The dead calla lily rose
like a cobra from the hood of its pot.
I wanted to break off the dried
stalk, but I was at my grandmother’s,
and it wasn't my place.  In her dining
room, the Chianti-colored walls bloomed
with photographs:  birthdays, weddings,
first communions, with crosses made of dried
palms tucked behind each frame, and Jordan
almonds clustered in nylon netting in candy dishes
on the credenza.  We were in our Sunday best, itchy
and starched.  Nona brought in the ravioli, the sausage,
the chicken, the bowls of blood-red ragù.

No one in this snapshot is still living, swallowed by the darkness
that comes for us all, charmed like a snake from its basket
of coils.  On this November afternoon, with a cold front
coming in, and the sun, a pale grapefruit in an orchard
of clouds, I close this black album, with all of its stories,
including the ones that haven't been written, including the ones
that nobody's told.    

The light of autumn: you will not be spared
                                        —Louise Glück

The burning bush has given up, slipped out of its scarlet
dress, stripped down to twig and limb, bare bones,
the architecture of itself.  This is the heart of autumn,
after the fire's gone out.  This is the year's dark dying,
when my mother began to slip from sight,
as imperceptibly as the moon shifts phases;
each day, a little less light. Frost's taken
all the flowers, the landscape, colorless,
shades of ash and beige, husks and seed
pods, what remains.

Barbara Crooker's work has appeared in magazines such as Yankee, The Christian Science Monitor, Highlights for Children, and The Journal of American Medicine (JAMA).  She is the recipient of the 2006 Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud, the 2004 WB Yeats Society of New York Award, the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, and has been a twenty-six time nominee for the Pushcart Prize. Radiance, her first full-length book, won the 2005 Word Press First Book competition and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize; her new book, Line Dance, is just out from Word Press.



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