The Pleasures of the Book – Spring 2021

by Jacqueline Lapidus (Guest Contributor)



Even in a “good” year, even when there’s hope on the horizon, you can read poetry and wonder, since there’s so much of it, why anyone would bother to write any more.  Or, you can read Barbara Crooker’s Some Glad Morning (University of Pittsburgh Press 2019) and be blown away by her exuberant use of language, then wonder why it took you so long to find it. One answer is “pandemic,” which abbreviated reading tours and cancelled writers’ conferences last year. Another is family commitments, which limited the author’s availability for online events. Although she has won numerous awards for earlier books (this is her ninth), Barbara Crooker is still a “stealth” poet, a messenger of revelation disguised as a demure-looking woman of a certain age standing quietly behind you in the checkout line.

As in her two books of ekphrastic poems: Les Fauves (2017), inspired by paintings of Paris and the south of France, and The Book of Kells (2019) on the illuminated medieval manuscript, contemplated among the flora and fauna of contemporary Ireland, Crooker’s poems engage all five senses and activate a sixth. Coming home to central Pennsylvania after a spring trip, she finds “Big Love” in her garden:

Shazam! Peonies exploding, great bombshells
Of fragrance and silk. Tada! A rainbow row
Of irises, blossoms shooting from green stalks.
Azaleas! Rhododendrons! Everywhere I look,
The yard is ready to send its bombs bursting in air.

“Peonies” in paintings, as she renders them, feel as alive as the real ones:

………….my perfume
colors the air, trailing ribbons
and silk scarves. I’m an implosion
of ruffles, a can-can dancer
at the Folies Bergère…

“Home Cooking” is more than nourishment, it’s erotic love:

…………….Let me spread
some butter on your cornbread, darling;
let it soak into all the cracks….

And sometimes, it’s like other kinds of creating: “…The more ingredients you add,/the less sure you’ll be about the eventual/outcome…” Crooker wants us to

+++++++++++++++slurp this poem with a spoon,
noting the elusive use of spices, how there’s
always something you can’t quite identify…     (“Recipe”)

In a moment of pure joy, fried eggs eaten with a friend are “spreading/ sunshine all over our plates.” And “Fifteen-Bean Soup” makes a prayer of gratitude out of the humblest fare:

………large & small limas, lentils,
navy beans, pintos, yellow-eyed beans, red & white
kidneys, black beans, garbanzos, cranberry beans,
small white & pink beans, green & yellow split peas.
And thank you to the onions, for your bite and snap…

Defying workshop conventions, Crooker uses images everyone tells you not to—like the moon—and renews them:

O, strobe light!
O, glitter! O, sequins! Who are you trying to kid?
You’re nothing but low-watt imitations of our great celestial diva.
She’s the one, the only, the never-lonely, the glow-light in lover’s lane,
the one we all look up to, even if we think it’s hokey…

In “Sparrows,” she moves from the banal to the sublime:

……………………………….No rush
for binoculars. Like the poor, they are always with us.
……………………………Maybe they are the only angels
We get in this life. But the very hairs on our head are numbered,
And the father knows them all by name.

In “Absence” they elicit mourning:

Sparrows for sorrow. One for everyone you’ve loved,
the missing. Count them under the feeder….
the rusty cap of a chipping sparrow signals spring
when they come back. The dead, though, do not return.

As she gets older she longs for a simpler time, when tools were hand-held and a manual typewriter conveyed her to another realm:

the clip-clop of fingers on keys,
the sleigh bell that rang when you reached
the end of the line….
The final streaks of graphite that said
Wrap it up, tie it together, lead it into the barn.
……………………….Remember how faithful
it was, this coal-black steed, the places
it took you to, far, far into the thicket of words.      (“Prompt”)

A dark thread runs through the book like an ominous bass line, each life with its premonition of mortality. A stillborn baby is the only one of the poet’s children who appears in this volume. A grandson saved from toxic shock evokes the image of Tiny Tim’s empty chair at Christmas. Parents’ admonitions outlive them. A dear friend dies, and then another, and another. The mature poet’s own pinched nerves warn her of a foreshortened future.  She can ignore them in the south of France, where a fragrant meadow offers only pleasure, but on the “Day of the Dead,” when the veil between worlds is thinnest, she feels a chill:

I’d like to cross over, just for one hour,
see my mother, hold my baby, talk to Clare. Perched on our shoulders,
the dead ride with us…

Even then, unlikely people turn out to be angels among us–like a TSA agent who notices her wincing with pain and pulls her out of the airport line:

She fixed me with her dark eyes, put
a solid arm around my shoulders,
and said, You’re going to be all right.
Then, swift as water flowing around rock,
she snapped back into her role, hitched up
her belt, motioned the next person in line to come on through. And I was left wondering
what had just happened….
+++++++++++++++….and the moving
walkway pulled me forward, carried me away.

It’s no accident that the title of this collection has a biblical ring to it. Barbara Crooker’s poems affirm her faith. The poems are metaphorical, not dogmatic—she gives the divine a name so that she can speak to it. Like the Prophets and exiled kings, she gets testy and complains to the Almighty:

Answer me when I call to you, even though,
I know, Lord, you don’t have cell service. Connectivity,
the problem of our time……how much stuff
to make us feel we’re a part of something larger?
Or maybe not? Maybe we should make a second start,
A do-over, a let serve, put the phone back in its charger?      (Psalm 4, Verse 1)

She promises to change her ways, praying for redemption:

I will meditate, and also do yoga.
Learn how to breathe through alternate nostrils.
I will make my pilgrimage unto the health spa
I will cleanse my body…….
Lord, remove my sins with steam, exfoliation.
Cleanse my soul, renew me, lead me unto hydration.   (Psalm 145, Verse 1)

Realistic, she acknowledges it’s as tough now as it ever was:

I will give thanks, even though I don’t feel like it,
the world going to hell in the proverbial you-know-what:
oceans rising, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires.
It’s the Apocalypse, baby, and then there’s the leader
of the Free World acting like a second-grader.      (Psalm 9 Verse 1)

Yes, Crooker has to admit, the ancients had it right in the first place. Doubt, fear and, especially, failure to pay close enough attention are what define us as human. Everything we’ve lived through and, most likely, messed up has happened before—and will probably happen again.  That being so, acceptance and persistence in the face of adversity are the only way not to succumb to despair.

All we have are these moments, the golden trees,
The industrious bees, the falling light. Darkness
will not overtake us.      (“Poem with an Embedded Line by Susan Cohen”)

For someone who is called to action, whatever name we give to the Voice, there are two possible answers. One is that of Abraham and Moses: “Who, me?” The other is, “Here I am.” Like the late Audre Lorde, Barbara Crooker understands that poetry is not a luxury—it does significant work in the world.

………………when what we’ve taken for granted
no longer seems given, I want to be a nail, a screw,
a brad, a fastener, something that holds things
together, even as it’s all about to fall apart.      (“Useful”)

Responding to her calling, she makes poems that transform. Some Glad Morning concludes, appropriately, with two short ones honoring those other traditional, transformative substances: crusty farmstand bread and “ordinary grapes [turned] into wine.”

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