The Innisfree Poetry Journal

by Janet McCann on Barbara Crooker

Les Fauves, Poems by Barbara Crooker. C&R Press, 2017.

This fascinating book is a treat for the senses.  Fauvism has been described as “an extreme development of Van Gogh’s Post-Impressionism fused with the pointillism of Seurat and other Neo-Impressionist painters.” Les Fauves, or “the wild beasts,” used bright colors and sometimes distorted forms to add movement and a sense of discovery to the quieter Impressionist tradition.

Barbara Crooker has won many awards including the Pen and Brush Poetry Prize, the Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud, the W.B. Yeats Society of New York Award, the Pennsylvania Center for the Book Poetry in Public Places Poster Competition, the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, the "April Is the Cruelest Month" Award from Poets & Writers, the New Millennium Writing’s Y2K competition, the Karamu Poetry Award, and others. Her seven poetry books and many chapbooks have won critical acclaim, and her work has been translated and performed.

It is not surprising to find that Crooker has been taken up by this particular movement—her own work has the shimmery surface of the later Impressionists and those who followed, together with the emotional resonance of their work. She always uses a full palette of colors, including the darkest ones, but this new collection is particularly luminous, dominated by blue, green, red, and yellow, inhabited by her artists as well as her life. It has four numbered sections, the first and last focusing mostly on art works and the second and third more about life events, writing, and travel—especially the residency in France where many of the poems were generated. The whole exudes a kind of sensory pleasure in art and the physical that becomes almost transcendent. Can the sacred be found in the surface of the world? This book suggests that it can. She finds both joy and fun in the physical world, as she expresses in her psalm-like “Les Boulangers”:

               . . . Praise the nimble
tongues of those who gave names to this plenty:
baguette, boule, brioche, ficelle, pain de champagne.
Praise the company they keep, their fancier cousins:
croissant, mille feuille, chausson aux pommes.
Praise flake after golden flake. Bless their saintly
counterparts: Jésuit, religieuse, sacristain, pets de nonne.
Praise be to the grain, and the men who grew it. Bless
the rising up and the punching down. The great
elasticity. The crust and the crumb . . .
It adds to the humor that the name of the sweet small cookies, “les pets de nonne,” translates as “nun’s farts.”

The second and third sections contain many poems about language, the joy of words, poetry writing as challenge and game. They play with usage and misusage.  “Your” begins
not always going to get what you
bargained for, not in this life, that’s
for sure. Take the apostrophe, such a small
stroke, who cares if its missing?
In “Usage,” parts of speech blend with the physical world, creating a meld of grammar and reference.
Here in the vernacular suburbs, lawns verb up
from curb to sidewalk, the active tense of spring.
The adjectival plantings of azaleas, rhododendrons…
daffodils’ asterisk golden heads, the exclamations
of tulips: red red red . . . .
The fourth section returns to the paintings, some of the poems looking back,  seeing the time spent in France as a contrast with or parallel to the speaker’s current situation. Interestingly, amidst all of Crooker’s playing with earthly/heavenly experiences, there seem to be glimpses of a genuine transcendent vision in which art is redemptive, creation holy. “Ink” in the last section describes Van Gogh’s method of sketching, then painting, then re-drawing it so he could send it to his brother. The last line of the poem is a quotation from Van Gogh.
—Repetition and refrain. Slant parallel lines,
to catch the rain. Thatched cottages, tangled vines.
Sometimes, he traced his own drawing onto the canvas,
keeping the structure.  Sometimes, he added more sky.
They were never quite the same.  Fence, haystack,
reed, and rush.  Drawing is the root of everything.
Crooker’s skilled use of form is unobtrusive—the craftsperson can see a variety of traditional and invented patterns in her work: sonnet, ghazal, end-rhymes, and more, but each poem is organic, and the form is an integral part of the effect—may not even be noticed.

Her characteristic form of synaesthesia—often a blending of taste with the other senses—is present too, adding to the pleasure of these delicious poems. We not only see these paintings but consume them, brushing off crumbs of color and light. This is a book to savor.

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