Book Review

Barbara Crooker, Gold, Cascade Books, 2013

by Margaret Rozga

Perusing shelves of poetry books, pages of publishers’ catalogues, and lists of winners and finalists in poetry contests, I sometimes marvel at the array and construction of the book titles.  They often have an air of mystery, given their unusual  pairings of adjectives, nouns, and/or verbs; the title of my forthcoming Justice   Freedom   Herbs can serve as a quick example.  Sometimes titles and subtitles play with popular sayings, with puns, or with oblique hints at the subject matter of the poems in the book.  None of this for Barbara Crooker.  Her new book is simply titled, Gold

This one word title gets right to work, carrying as much significance as a more heavily wrought title and doing so with apparent ease.  Think color, think wealth, think elemental, rare, valuable, high quality. Think paradoxically.  Think Robert Frost, as Crooker does for the book’s epigraph:  “Nothing gold will stay.”  Like the gold of the first spring buds, the gold of fall leaves is impermanent.  This is a book about loss, about death, specifically the death of Crooker’s mother Isabelle.  It is also a book about sweetness.  In her dying days, Isabelle loses her appetite for food, except for sweets, for Dunkin’ Donuts and for Marshmallow Peeps.  The end, the loss, is thus sweet and golden.  It may be, as it is in this case, further sweetened by Crooker’s new-found love.  But the journey to that point is not easy.
Near the mid-point of the book, Crooker compares grief to a river.  She stands mid-river, not wanting to cross. She says she is stuck there:  “I can’t cross over.  Then you really will be gone.” (30). She does, however, find a way, finds ways, or they find her.   At a simple improvised ceremony after Isabelle dies, Crooker finds a way to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.  She picks up where the hospice chaplain leaves off.

When there were
no more words or tears, 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, the grainy fluff
on our tongues, and it was good.                   (24)

All those present taste the sweetness that pleased Isabelle and, in doing so, find communion among themselves.  That is the good.  The effort to find that good is almost hidden; it seems easy, except for the telltale words that connote struggle:  ripped, tore, blood. 

Crooker draws from keen observation of the seasonal changes in the world around her the insight and wisdom that help smooth the way through all the losses, of which her mother’s death is central.  She writes in “Plentitude” of the impending winter:  “I’ve felt its breath on the back of the wind.”  But she finds “a bit of respite” in late fall with the sun still warm:  “These blue/mountains cup me in their hands.  This lucent afternoon / and a spigot of birdsong fill my bowl to the brim.”  (11). At other times, the natural world seems less beneficent.  In the title poem, for example, Crooker uses the language of the financial world and technology to show gold’s finite aspects.  Nature’s gold “falls through our fingers,” inevitably and irretrievably.  “We try to bank it, / but our password is denied.” (6)

The grief comes through most intensely in the poems of the book’s second section.  Both her garden and works of art are perceived in terms of death.  She sees the vibrant red, red-orange of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Oriental Poppies, 1928” as “road-flares” which suggests not life so much as danger.  She concludes her poem with an emphasis on loss.  “Every gardener knows about loss: thinning, pruning, / the appetite of rabbits, how frost waits in the wings, / sharpening his shears.” (15)
Her own palette, she writes in “La neige et l’hiver” is “a smudgy grisaille / of slate, steel, smoke.  And ochre.”  Everything has become grey as she experiences this palpable grief that “pours over me without warning.  Puts items / in my grocery cart that only she would eat.” (27)

In the third and fourth sections, the mood turns away from somber after Crooker views a retrospective of the work of Arshile Gorky, a painter whose palette also was mostly grey.  She recalls there the fact of Gorky’s suicide.  Given the progression of poems after this point, that fact seems to help her resolve to keep on finding joy, like the woodpecker who knocks “about / his daily business” of “drumming for the dumb / fun of making music” which Crooker picks up in the assonance of those short u sounds.  Then the woodpecker, and presumably Crooker, begins again the next day to “knock himself out all over again.” (44)
Crooker then finds love, or love finds her, at a party she happens to attend.  She wonders:  “What if / I hadn’t gone to the party that night?”  (45) She also finds an image that resonates with her and points her forward in a painting by Raoul Dufy. 

There’s a riderless horse in one corner
of the picture, you’ve just alighted and are looking
into my eyes as if nothing in the world was as important
as what I might say next.  I want to paint your body
with the pink sable of my tongue.  I want to memorize
your skin.  I want this blue afternoon to never end. (56)

All is not perfect from this point onward.  The poems show a continued awareness of loss, of disease, of social inequity.  Barbara Crooker’s Gold is a book about loss, but it is also a book that never loses sight of what is to be found. The apparently effortless grace of the title also characterizes the poems in this latest of Crooker’s poetry books.  For all the wrestling with grief, this book is a joy to read.

Margaret Rozga served as managing editor of the chapbook anthology Turn Up the Volume: Poems About the States of Wisconsin.  Her books include Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad. 200 Nights and One Day, and Justice   Freedom    Herbs (forthcoming).