A Brief Review of
The Book of Kells: Poems
Reviewed by Obi Martin
This collection of poems will introduce some readers to the ninth century masterpiece of insular illumination, the Book of Kells, from which the collection borrows its name, and enrich the minds of other readers by respelling for them the beauty and magic of Ireland’s greatest national treasure.
Barbara Crooker’s book takes its direction as series of meditations on the original Book of Kells’s content, process, and creators. The collection is a celebration of beauty, and truth, and the dedication it takes to preserve them. The world of the book draws on the world of the monks who created the Book of Kells, their imagination, and gospel the made the world to them holy. “The whole world was holy,/” writes Crooker, “Not just parts of it. The world was the Book of God” in a poem dedicated to the two Latin letters, chi and rho. Part of Crooker’s venture in this collection is to question this: “How must a people have viewed language to invest such careful attention in each individual letter?” In past and haunting tense, she writes “The alphabet shimmered and buzzed in beauty.”
Crooker at once keeps an eye out for the familiar and the unfamiliar. In folio 188r she looks for “four men pulling beards.” In folio 32v she sees Jesus “not on the throne of heaven,/but on an ordinary blue kitchen chair.” Its gorse, she says, at the end of the rainbow, and “more than anything,/my job is to pay attention”. “Let us praise the agile little animals/”, she writes in another poem, anxious like the monks who inspired her that none be left out, “…who can wedge in small places: the moth/…or the monk on his horse, trotting right off the page.”
One endearing feature of this collection is the glossas Crooker writes by taking a quatrain from Yeats, Heany, or O’Driscoll and opening up or embellishing snatches of their poetry her own entire nine-line stanzas, illuminating their work that has gone before.
Throughout the entire collection, Crooker’s richly measured lines are steeped in a tradition of beauty. She measures her own experience of beauty not just by her own era, but by a deeply meaningful past. Her symbolism and metaphor draw on the natural created world, the world created in the Book of Kells, and the world of pre-Christian lore and enchantment. In the context of all this wonder, not-quite-yet-dispelled, she tries to make sense of her own strange age of secular doubt where “with such a torrent, nothing is important; all of it blends/and whirls.” In a way, our time with its “rush of two much,” “device-laden lives, fossil-fueled cars, over-stocked larders” and the Book of Kells with its “interlace knots, no beginning/or end,” “heaven and earth intertwined, coiled spirals,/connected by curves” are both cluttered. But cluttered with what? What is the difference between them? And what media of ours, will be worth celebrating a thousand years from now? “Ink,” Crooker says, “[is] made from what remains.”