More by Barbara Crooker. Chatanooga, TN: C & R Press, 2010. $14.95.
Reviewed by Susan Elbe
“Always, this hunger for more.” This last line of the first poem of Barbara Crooker’s third full-length collection, More, is for me a manifesto for the book as a whole. This is a book of longing, a book that I think could only have been written by someone passing through the late middle of her life. These poems are not about cutting your teeth on the fruit of this world, but about our appetite for what’s already been tasted, that which we don’t want to let go. Crooker wants to “…eat the whole thing down to the rind” because she already knows how good this life is. At the same time, age and experience have made her aware of the dark from which “…all this loveliness spring(s).”
Although I enjoyed the fully mature work in Crooker’s first two collections, there is in this rather slim volume, a spare but confident tone, a “more,” that, for me, makes this her best yet. More knows its own shape. It’s a book that knows what it wanted to be.
The book is divided into four unnumbered and untitled sections, each beginning with an epigraph that cues the reader for what is to come, each exploring in a different way our physical and spiritual appetites for life. Crooker does this by creating beautiful still lifes with language. This is not to say that the poems are static. To the contrary, they leap off the page with lush and vibrant imagery, with considerable play of light and shadow. Like all writers, she has her totems, touchstones: lemons show up many times, as do other kinds of fruit and food. In “Strewn,” for example, Crooker says, “…The light pours down, a rinse/of lemon on a cold plate. All of us, broken, some way or other.” Water, specifically the ocean, shows up again and again.
In the first section, Crooker offers up 12 poems that, with subtlety and gentleness, ease the reader into the journey she’s taking us on, this incredible desire for more. Although she never hits us over the head with a hammer, this section introduces us as well to the darkness, the knowledge of where we’re headed, the inevitable losses we will endure. Crooker reminds us that we are “getting nowhere,” that “time is running away,” that though we must, we “…don’t’ know how to say goodbye.”
In “What You Want,” we hear a music tinged with regret:
You want a bad boy for a lover,
one who’d make a lousy husband,
a wanderer on a Harley. What you want
has high cholesterol, lots of sodium,…
But two poems later in “Ode to Olive Oil,” we are sated again with the abundance of what we can and do have:
Velvet on the tongue. The light
of late afternoons. I am eating
sunshine, spread on bread;
primroses open in my mouth.
She ends this first section with the poem “Narrative,” which lays down the thread that strings together everything that follows (emphasis is mine):
This morning’s miracle: dawn turned up its dimmer,
set the net of dew on the lawn to shining. The sky,
lightly iced with clouds, stretched from horizon
to horizon, not an inch to spare, and later, the sun
splashed its bucket of light on the ground. But it’s
never enough. The hungry heart wants more: another
ten years with the man you love, even though you’ve had
thirty; one more night rinsed in moonlight, bodies twisted
in sheets, one more afternoon under the plane trees
by the fountain, with a jug of red wine and bits of bread
scattered around. More, even though the grasses
are glowing in the dying light, and the hills are turning
all the syllables of lavender, as evening draws the curtains,
turns on the lamps. One more book, one more story,
as if all the words weren’t already written, as if all the plots
haven’t been used, as if we didn’t know the ending already,
as if this time, we thought it could turn out differently.
The second section begins with an epigraph by Thoreau: “There is no remedy to love but to love more.” And here is where Crooker explores the longing and losses of love, conjugal, familial, and for the things of this world. In “The Mother Suite,” the longest poem in the book, which is a poignant chronicle of her mother’s last days, she says, “…Such a slight subtraction, for love/to turn to lose.” Lemons show up here again as a whole section of the poem, a metaphor for the bitter and the sweet.
By the time we arrive at the third section, which consists of ten ekphrastic poems, Crooker has worked her magic and we barely skip a beat. Because she is a painterly writer in general and so good at this, without her titles it would be difficult to even realize these are ekphrastic poems. Because all of her work creates a visual landscape, we move effortlessly into and through this section. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, an entire section of ekphrasis has the potential to break up the book’s flow. But here, Crooker smoothly carries us through.
The river in the book’s opening poem, “How the Trees on Summer Nights Turn into a Dark River,” that started us on this journey returns in “The Young Girls, the Yellow Dress, and the Scottish Dress—Henri Matisse,” now changed and changing still.
...And then there’s memory,
that other river, the one that meanders,
slips underground, reappears in a meadow
where you least expect it….
My favorite poem in this section is the third section of “Three by Hopper.” This section, more than any other for me speaks to the heart of the book:
3. Hopper’s Women
are always alone, even if someone
else is in the room, even if they’re leaning
at the counter of an all-night diner. This woman
is standing in the open mouth of her doorway
as if it were the prow of an ocean liner,
ready to embark on a long voyage. Her dress
and lips part in anticipation. The sun pounds
down, a relentless spotlight, but she is unblinking
in its glare, stares off in the middle distance.
Triangular shadows slice the air; rough waters
ahead. The curtain of the sky rises. Everything
is about to begin.
The fourth and last section of the book consists of 10 poems, each one feeling to me like a summation of an important exploration focused on in the other sections. Together they produce a wonderful tension of sadness and praise. When we finally arrive at the last poem, “Holsteins,” we are right there with Crooker, wanting “all this to last.”
Susan Elbe is the author of Eden in the Rearview Mirror (Word Press) and a chapbook, Light Made from Nothing (Parallel Press). Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including Blackbird, diode, MARGIE, North American Review, Ocho, qarrtsiluni, Salt Hill, and A Fierce Brightness: Twenty-five Years of Women's Poetry (Calyx Books). Among her awards are the inaugural Lois Cranston Memorial Poetry Prize (Calyx), the 2006 Lorine Niedecker Award, and fellowships to Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for Creative Arts. You can learn more about her and her work at www.susanelbe.com.