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A Feature Review of
Gold: Poems (Poiema Poetry Series)
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2014
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Reviewed by Kendra Juskus
In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth wrote that “the poet has “a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present.” In Barbara Crooker’s poetry, everything is present. In the poems of her latest collection, Gold, published by Cascade Books as part of the Poiema Poetry Series, the world is so irresistible that her speakers and characters eat it alive, smacking their lips.
This urge to savor everything has much to do with the intersection between Crooker’s chosen epigraph—Frost’s familiar “Nothing gold can stay”—and the loss of her mother: “We only have one mother,” she poignantly reminds us. But mothers aren’t the only precious metals in this book. Crooker’s speaker also scrambles to hold onto “blue afternoon[s]”; “a spigot of birdsong”; “the long slow drip of honey and molasses”; “the hoots and calls of [her husband’s] breathing”; and “coffee in a mug, buttered toast, the same old sun returning.” However Crooker may live the present moment, her words inspire nothing less than a desire to be fully absorbed in the fleeting world.
What comes of this grasping at life before it fades is a sensory feast. Crooker, a master of the ekphrastic poem, paints her own pictures and places her readers solidly in them—on the canvas itself, plastered in color and dizzy with the scent of oils. Most often her images appeal to the eyes and the palate—whole recipes pepper these poems—but all five of the senses are filled. Consider the conclusion of “Peeps,” a poem in which the speaker recounts her dying mother’s love of the Easter candy. The speaker brings Peeps to her mother’s funeral ceremony: “… I ripped open the last packet / of Peeps, tore their little marshmallow bodies, / their sugary blood on my hands, and gave a piece / to each of us. It melted, grainy fluff / on our tongues, and it was good.”
It is in poems like “Peeps,” where death is directly tackled, that Crooker’s voice and imagery are strongest. Every poem in this collection is filled with sparkling imagery and accessible diction and syntax that make them relatable and enjoyable. But as delightful as it is to join a speaker with a “friend’s last book spread / on the table and a cup of coffee in a white china mug,” it is perhaps truer to join her on the facing page, in “My Mother’s Body Knits Itself Into a Nest of Pain”: “No honey is sweet enough / for this dark cup of tea. . . . I might as well carry sugar in my hands; / grain by grain, she sifts away.” That Crooker can maintain fidelity to her sensuous language in expressions of grief demonstrates her facility with language and her commitment to living every moment of this life in which “everything burns.”
Part One of this four-part collection considers that literal and metaphorical cusp of winter where such burning and fading take place. Several opening poems linger on the spirit of Frost’s line in anticipation of the cold that will snuff out life. And then, in “Plenitude,” comes the first mention of a mother’s failing health, of one concrete, imminent death among the more general fate of things.
The death itself takes place somewhere in the course of Part Two, where the language shifts from dread to loss. Tangible evidence of passing is handled: ashes, depression, and “grief everywhere.” Again, these suffering poems startle and strike in their authenticity. Everyone needs company in what is the loneliest journey, and Crooker’s honest and sublime descriptions of mourning provide crucial companionship. The only thing missing is a robust depiction of how mother and daughter related before this period of sickness and death. Was the speaker’s relationship with the mother complicated or fraught in any way? From these poems, readers may easily assume that it was near-perfect. But the complexities of human ties necessarily give rise to a variety of difficult feelings upon death. Certainly Crooker has fodder for a new collection in recalling the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship.