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For poems by Barbara in this issue

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A selection from the poetry of Charles Fishman

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The White Poems were published by Barnwood, 2001, and Ordinary Life by Byline press, 2001.

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For ordering information and a complete biography, visit Barbara's web

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Charles Fishman is Associate Editor for The Drunken Boat

Barbara Crooker's The White Poems and Ordinary Life


A Review by Charles Fishman


Barbara Crooker's The White Poems are small miracles of grace and attention, the truest kind of homage. One of the more impressive things about this beautiful sequence on the death of her friend, Judy Krol, is that she is able to suggest so much about Krol's agonizingly slow dying from breast cancer in poems that mainly focus on the ravishing sensual loveliness of the natural world. Crooker's control of tone and image is so sure that these commemorative poems never seem sentimental or overwritten. The language is lucid, spare, luminous, and often painfully accurate and incisive.

Here, for instance, in a passage from “October Light,” are lines that suggest how cancer has taken root in Krol and how the first tendrils of anxiety and grief have begun to fasten themselves to the author:
Sun pours through sycamore leaves, warms your bones.
Inside these ivory cages, we carry the seeds of our death,
like the black stars in the white heart of an apple.
In “Meditation in Mid-October,” Crooker connects the oncoming singeing effect of the first autumnal frost with the spreading of her friend's life-blighting cancer: “Right now, just the tips of basil have been brushed / with frost's black kiss. . . . / Piece by piece, they've pruned her body.” And in “November, Sky Full of Bruises,” we are told “They will pull the marrow from her bones, / let it leak out slowly the way this November leaves. . . .”

A year of brutally invasive treatment concludes with unfulfilled expectations and passes, as does a desperate hope that has found no purchase. In the stunning “Equinox,” Crooker acknowledges this harrowing itinerary of losses, yet she finds the strength and determination to celebrate her friend's life, just when she begins to mourn:
     she's come through it all, annealed by fire,
calm settled in her bones like the morning mist in valleys
. . . and her hair's returned, glossy. . . .
                                                  I want to praise things
that cannot last.
In meticulously observed lines like these, Crooker carries us forward, guiding us through the passage of four unsettling years that culminate with Krol's dying. The poems propel us forward while they tug us more deeply into the darker valleys of our own fears and sorrows. The wonder of The White Poems is that, although they ferry us near to the shores of death, they reveal to us that the days of Judith Krol have been indelibly marked by her passion for life. We see how fully Krol's world, and Crooker's, have been charged with the vivid and fleeting, but ever-renewing, colors of existence.

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Ordinary Life, also published last year, is focused nearly exclusively on Crooker's wearying, frustrating, but at times magical and exalting, relationship with her autistic son, David. One would expect this handsomely produced book to be a heartfelt tribute to a mother's love for her different and difficult child—and it is certainly that—but Ordinary Life also serves as Crooker's argument with God, who can cause the leaves to change color and fall in autumn and call new leaves forth again in spring, so that they green up the world, each leaf a small embodiment of function and beauty, but who cannot, or will not, consistently make perfectly formed or fully conscious children. This is a world composed of the most basic and essential things—food, work, rest, play, love, sleep—in which something has gone painfully and irreparably wrong.

In “Doing Jigsaw Puzzles,” Crooker describes what it is like to spend her waking hours with a child with whom she can never quite connect:
David still sits here, working his blocks.
His eyes glaze over, his gaze is far away.
An invisible icy membrane
is cast over him like a caul.
Nothing in the world can touch his heart.
And love's first kiss won't break this spell.
In “Running: a Personal Best,” David “picks mushrooms, / says 'umbrella' and 'it's raining, it's pouring' / even though it's the sun beating down. . . .” The flowers, birdsong, sensory richness, and even the warmth of “high summer,” offer little respite for a mother whose child is unable to perceive this beauty, or to comprehend his place in it, no matter how attentively she ministers to him, no matter how much of life she shares with him. This tension between what Crooker wishes to give to her son and what he is able to receive pulls like a black thread through the bright fabric of these poems, but perhaps we see the pattern most clearly in this segment of “Grating Parmesan”:
You come running when I reach for the grater,
'Help me?' you ask, reversing the pronouns,
part of your mind's disordered scramble.
Together, we hold the rind of the cheese,
scrape our knuckles on the metal teeth.
A fresh pungency enters the room.
You put your fingers in the fallen crumbs:
'Snow,' you proudly exclaim, and look at me.
Three years old, nearly mute,
but the master of metaphor.
Most of the time, we speak without words.
In both The White Poems and Ordinary Life, Barbara Crooker has gathered poems that luminously address the disjunction between the world of created things and the torn and fragile universe of human affection and love.