Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems

Image of Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems
Release Date: 
January 1, 2015
FutureCycle Press
Reviewed by: 

Visual art comes in many varieties: the hard and angular avant-garde, sharp at the edges, cerebral; the visceral work of hyperrealism; the quiet landscape, full of light.

In the same way, one can find poets to suit all of our moods and needs.

Barbara Crooker’s gift as a writer resembles that of a landscape artist, patient and understated. The poems in her volume, Selected Poems, published by Futurecycle Press, are keenly observed, carefully crafted, and thoughtful.

Unafraid to expose what has become for many younger female poets the double lives they live as mothers, cooks, friends, partners in long relationships, Crooker writes frankly and well about the domestic aspects of her life as a woman.

And not only her own life, but those of women who have come before her, as in the poem ”Rebekah Ziegler at the Quilting,” which explores the experience of a Pennsylvania Dutch denizen of the rural landscape the poet currently occupies.

The speaker of this poem, a young woman of marriageable age, relates in a calm clear voice her acceptance of what might seem to some a limited future.

Looking around herself in full consciousness, the narrator tells us,  “I know from the English neighbors/ that life can be different,/ but I will live mine/in straight and narrow rows:/Double Wedding Ring, Garden Maze,/ Ohio Rose, Morning Star,/The Tree of Life.” The controlling metaphor for this effort throughout her work is not quilting but gardening. 

The “English” neighbors are outsiders to the Amish community. It is not that the narrator is unaware she could live differently if she wished to. Rather, she chooses to stay within the long-established patterns of her community, masters them, turns them into art.

In her way, Crooker does something similar.

In poem after poem, she announces her intention “to praise everything brief and finite” (“Equinox”), embracing the cycles of nature, though all life ends inevitably in loss and death. For, as she tells us, “we know the end of the story,/ but we love the beginning anyway” (“The Mothers”).

It is a task full of hope,  for “in spite of everything, June will come again, and those little/pairs of leaves will make their run for it, ladder up the air./And these peas will fill their pods with sweet green praise” ( “1992: Faith”).

Gardeners are also obliged to put up the abundance they produce, and Crooker revels in her ability to conserve not only the fruit she has grown, but “the sweetness of early June” itself, “poured in glass jars” and “[shining] in its cathedral of wax” (“Starting From Zero”).

Just as Rebekah Zeigler, the narrator of her poem, freely chooses the restrictive life of an Amish woman,  the poet  herself could choose to occupy a tropical landscape, where “winter is a verb” (“1993: Hope”), a place of wild abundance, but she chooses instead a temperate climate,  with a short growing season that reminds her of mortality and the urgency of the effort to make something of the life she is given.

Like the self-imposed limitations of the poetic form this writer frequently embraces, these complications help add meaning to tasks that might otherwise seem rote, turning them to art.

In lieu of a life in the commercial workplace, which some would regard as glamorous, Crooker also chooses “poetry’s lonely offices” (“My Friend E-Mails That She’d Like to Quit Her Job, but She Doesn’t Have Time”),which keep her close to home and family,and clearly feels little regret.

Yet she does have some doubts about the ultimate efficacy of human efforts to create beauty and meaning in a world of loss.

On one hand, our feeble efforts sometimes strike this poet as “a strand of hand-blown beads/to grace the throat of a lawn” (“Form and Void”).

On the other, as Crooker notes, our options are few: “We could curse the ground, or we could praise/what is there: cups of honey and cream that spill in the air”(“Rosa Multiflora”).

For this poet,  an artist’s task is to praise in words or other media,  “to paint the world, the entire edible world/full of pomegranates and eggplants” while she still has the life and breath to do so (“Leaving the White In”).

Ultimately however, “there is no consolation, only the sun, bright as a dandelion/in a child’s tight fist” (Bright Star).

It is the shade that makes a landscape, as well as the light.

Crooker clearly “[loves] the road,/ the journey, the whole difficult trip of it” (“April Slips on Her Green Silk Dress”), and that is what draws us to these deeply felt and observant poems.

If you have never savored a book of poems by this writer, this is a good one to start with, for it offers a broad swath of her work,  evidence of a rich life lived in poetry.