10 October 2013

Gold by Barbara Crooker


Gold
Barbara Crooker
Cascade Books
Perfect bound, 69 pgs
ISBN: 978-1-62032-940-5

Reviewed by Dawn Leas

From the cover's buttery suede texture and gorgeous art (Gustav Klimt's The Three Ages of Women, 1905) to the vivid imagery and poignant themes inside, this collection has easily earned the right to be called Gold and is worthy of a gold-star review.

In poems that speak to natural elements and changing seasons, to a mother's illness and death, to food and its soothing effects, to childhood memories and fairy tales, and a writer's response to visual art, Barbara Crooker paints an intricately layered collage with a vibrancy that reaches all the senses and touches an array of emotions as well. Some poems are stippled, some carry the oily mark of a heavy edge of a painter's knife, many feel like the soothing colors of a watercolor while just as many are Jackson Pollacked with the rich tones of fall – garnet, gold, yellow.

While the raw pain of taking care of a loved one through an illness and then the inevitable passing of that person is a dark ink line running through this collection, Crooker employs food as a salve, not only for the dying, but for those being left behind. She seems  to use the mixing of ingredients and making food that appeals to her mother's waning appetite not only as a way of taking care of her but also as a way of saying goodbye, of finding her own solace and comfort. From “All Saints:”

My mother, too, is ready to leave. All she wants now
is sugar: penuche fudge, tapioca pudding, pumpkin roll...

...I want this sweetness to linger
on her tongue, because the days are growing shorter
now, and night comes on, so quickly.

And from “On the Day of Her Diagnosis:”
...now I bring her lentil
soup, with circles of kielbasa, carrots, onions;
scones warm from the oven, spread with strawberry
jam, whatever bit of sweetness I can scrap
from the jar. Mother, daughter, all the old stories,
the frost moon, the loss moon, sinking below the horizon.

Crooker also pays homage to the visual arts and uses several paintings and trips to museums as inspirational sparks for poems. One is after Georgia O'Keefe's “Oriental Poppies, 1928” titled  “Oriental Poppies:”

Lit matches struck in the dar, road-flares
burning, these poppies smolder by the bird bath
where we cradled my mother's ashes
when her life wicked out. Each flower
is splotched with black, night at the heart
of burning sky...

In “Deauville, le Paddock, after a painting by Raoul Dufy,” she mixes her theme of art and food to
give the reader a clear visual image whipped with a distinct understanding of the taste of it:

This house, pink stucco, could be made of meringue,
a confection beaten out of egg white and lights. If I bit
into it, sugar would melt on my tongue.

The third part of the book begins with a poem titled “Sparklers,” which is about a time after her mother's death, but invokes childhood memories of playing with sparklers. Who hasn't drawn their names with fiery light on a humid July 4th night:

We are writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use loops of cursive,
make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake.

And then at the end:

...And though my mother's
name has been erased now I write it, too:
a big swooping I, a little hissing s, an a that sighs
like her last breath, and then I ring
belle, belle, belle in the sulphuric smoky dark.

In “Monopoly: 1955” Crooker speaks about her grandparents emigrating from Italy, who “measured their gold in olive oil, not bank notes / and deeds;” her mom cooking chicken “to multiply / itself into many meals. The fat rose to the surface, / a roiling ocean of molten gold;” and the kids playing Monopoly “for hours” and “We would start by fanning out the money, colored / like Necco wafers: pink, yellow, mint, gold.”

This poem is one of my favorites in the whole collection, probably because it hits close to home for me. My cousins and I used to play marathon rounds of Monopoly and Life. My paternal great-grandparents emigrated from Italy, and my Irish grandparents were always stretching food to feed their family of 10.

Drops of color drip from the tip of Crooker's paintbrush throughout the collection creating movement and life in her work. Sometimes she names the colors – gold, garnet, cerulean; in other places she shows us goldenrod, the fuchsias and black-eyed susans, the redbud trees (“the pluperfect of purple”), dandelion “parachutes”, a bevy of birds, the tomatoes, mozzarella and “dark splash of balsamic,” October, grass, pistachios, and zucchini. The presence of these strong, colorful images among many others tells the story of the changeover of seasons in nature and in life.

There is a palpable stillness and quietness throughout, yet also a tinge of urgency- enjoy these foods, these seasons, these moments because they can slip by unnoticed until one day they are gone. The colors of fall are used heavily in the beginning of the collection and then by the last section there are blues polka-dotted throughout several poems, almost like a string tying the reader to the ethereal.  At the very end of the book, Crooker dry brushes the greens of spring and rebirth in “Pistachios” and “Zucchini.”

From “Pistachios:”
It's no accident that things newly minted are green,
that the grass springs up green when April comes
round again.

Many of Crooker's poems seem so effortless, so easy in how their words play together and  tumble over one another to their natural endings; their compositions well-executed and fully realized. However, poems that seem effortless are the ones that require the most work on the part of the poet. And since this collection is teeming with them, it leads the reader to an understanding of the talent and dedication of an author who has studied and practiced her craft and is now reaping a rich harvest from a full body of work. I have only given you a glimpse into this masterfully painted collection. For every example I included, there is a bushel or two more in the book. I encourage you to feel the cover in your own hands, study the cover's painting, and then see Crooker's vivid imagery jump from the pages, read her carefully selected words that fall exactly where they are meant to be in this collaged collection. Whether you are sitting on a park bench, in your car during your child's sports practice, or in your favorite chair, you will witness the collection's artistry unfold each time you turn the page.




Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She is the Associate Program Director of the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MA/MFA programs.

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