Claire Keyes on Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker, Selected Poems (Future Cycle Press, 2015).  


Crooker, the Emersonian

Barbara Crooker is familiar to those of us who follow the small press poetry scene and poetry on-line.  Her poems have appeared and keep appearing in a wide variety of journals. Her Selected Poems draws upon her chapbooks along with a cluster of uncollected work. While the chapbooks each possess a thematic unity, reading them in this collection allows a wider perspective. How could I have not noticed that Crooker is an Emersonian? Without being didactic or pedantic, Crooker shows the vibrancy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thought and brings a powerful strain in American Literature into 21st century discourse. This is not to say that Crooker sat down and read Emerson and then wrote her poems. She is too subtle a poet for that. Nonetheless, her poems operate in a great American tradition that runs from Emerson through Whitman and Emily Dickinson into Robert Frost and Mary Oliver and beyond. It’s not all she is, but Emersonian concepts are at the core of her poetic being. In this review I will interweave some of Emerson’s key ideas from his essay Nature with illustrative poems by Barbara Crooker. 


To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty.”
R.W. Emerson


Crooker’s “All Souls’ Day” brings the “attentive eye” to November, a month that many of us find less than beautiful. Suitably, we locate the day of the dead or “All Souls’ Day” in this month because the natural world enters the season of deliquescence. While Crooker’s’ poem acknowledges the ending of things, “Wind scours trees to their bones,” she finds beauty too. Just as a hawk “seeks a thermal / and soars,” so too “the dead rise . . . will-o-the-wisps of mist and haze, / tobacco smoke from Indian pipes.” Because her mind moves so smoothly and easily from external to internal, from the natural world to the human world, Crooker’s poem is quietly thrilling. She looks around herself and senses, “everywhere, the silence of all the folded wings.” This last image bespeaks a world in which the physical and the spiritual commingle. It’s a synesthetic image with an emphasis on sound as well as the visual. Those “folded wings” have an immanence, a sense of possibility, of rest before flight. 


The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural history:

the use of the outer creation, to give us language

for the being and changes of the inward creation. 

R.W. Emerson


In a poem like “January Thaw,” Crooker’s touch is light as she attends to the “outer creation” on an unusually warm, January day when “Crocuses push their tips / through the newly softened earth.” The human reaction to this early flowering is caution, wanting the flowers to “shrink, before the snow returns,” then to “dazzle us/ with your watered silks/ of purple, white, gold.” Even so, the speaker notes how “we warm, too, turn our faces upward/ to the light.” So intrinsic is this human reaction (who can resist warm sun in January?) that, the poem concludes, “Shyly, small flowers open in our hearts.” This inward creation mimes the outer creation and is a hallmark of Crooker’s poetry.


Man is an analogist and studies relation in all objects.

R.W. Emerson


Of course, Emerson’s “Man” also invokes woman. Such an analogist is Barbara Crooker even when writing about the painful subject of possible neurosurgery on a child, most likely her own. “Learning to Speak Neurosurgery” gives us a parent watching her child learning to crawl outdoors on a balmy day in April. Crooker is not writing narrative, but proceeds through metaphor and simile to create the emotional and spiritual climate. First, “the heart, that stingy fist, begins to open / generous as apple blossoms.” The simile is natural. What could be more apparent to the “attentive eye” than apple blossoms on an April day? The poem will eventually counter this beneficent opening, but the dynamic is established. The mother watches her child “crawl on the new grass / bewildered as a foal at this strange green carpet.” In this image she gives us both simile (“as a foal”) and metaphor, “this strange green carpet.” She is an analogist; it’s how she experiences the world, “studying relations in all objects.” The poem then moves to the head of the child: “In the coral of his brain, / CAT scans reveal a gray fish / swimming an inland sea.” Doctors are not sure what this gray fish portends, but none of the options give cause for hope: “brain damage, stroke, cancer.” Crooker’s image relies solely on metaphor: the brain: coral; the damage: “a gray fish.” The mind of the poet operates via metaphor. That is, the analogist understands this cruel human situation through its relation to the natural world.


Once the analogist gets going, there’s no stopping her: “the apple blossoms light up the tree, / stars in a green sky.” The blossoms remind her of stars, the sky not dark but leafy green. She then notes how the baby smells: “Fragrance lifts from his skin / the way the clouds of phlox loft / their scent  at night.” Despite the damage to his brain, the child smells particularly wonderful. There is, however, a serious problem that cannot be wrapped in metaphor and the poem closes with three lines that send a shiver down the spine:

Spring, with its rumor of new life,

has never seemed more false.

The white lilacs shimmer in the wind.

As despondent as these final lines appear, Crooker elects to end her poem with the lilacs. Even as the speaker despairs of the outcome for her child, she notices what’s going on in the “outer world.” As Janet McCann says in the Foreword to this collection, “What remains mostly with the reader is the beauty; primarily the beauty and joy of nature.” In addition, Crooker is blessed with the “attentive eye”; it is her saving grace.


Is Crooker more than this Emersonian? Of course. How could any intelligent, observant 21st century woman not be? At her core, however, is this bedrock analogist. Despite her subject matter or her tone, she sees relation in all things and the strategy works for her. Through reading her poems we can become awake to them as well.

Claire Keyes is the author of The Question of Rapture and the chapbook, Rising and Falling. Her new book of poems, What Diamonds Can Do, was published in 2015 by Cherry Grove Collections. Her poems and reviews have appeared most recently in Literary BohemianSugar Mule, Oberon, Crab Orchard Review, and Blackbird. She is Professor emerita at Salem State University. 



Current Issue
Contributors' Notes

Email this poem Printer friendly page

A CLOSER LOOK: Michael Collier

Glen Armstrong

Jane Blue

Martha Christina

Douglas Clark

Michael Collins

Philip Dacey

Alixa Doom

Keith Dunlap

Renee Gherity

Claire Keyes on Barbara Crooker

Michael Lauchlan

Jenna Le

Saundra Rose Maley on Donald Berger

Laura Manuelidis

Judith McCombs

Seth Michelson on Alicia Partnoy

Joseph Mills

George Moore

Roger Pfingston

Oliver Rice

David Salner

Robert Joe Stout

Michele Wolf














Last Updated: Mar 10, 2021 - 2:35:35 PM

Copyright 2005 - 2021 Cook Communication.