Barbara Crooker invokes Robert Frost in Gold: (Poiema Poetry), her recent poetry collection, with the daunting epigraph “Nothing gold can stay.” Her poems move deftly through seasons, of life and love, of earth and illness, particularly surrounding the loss of her mother. She offers a grand spectrum across which to place her grief; Gold includes ekphrastic poems in response to artists like Manet and Gorky, as well as an international landscape.
Crooker invites readers so intimately into her life that I could not help but share my own: I read Gold when maple leaves were preparing to turn in my hometown; I marked my place in the collection with a memorial pamphlet to remember a poet and his recent death; I flipped pages after my grandmother fell, broke her hip, and slipped further and further into confusion. I began to flip also through seasons of memory as Crooker turned my mind from summer to fall and back again. All the while, Gold loomed large before me.
The collection asks what rumbles day by day: how do we grieve? Not only for a mother or a lover, but for a past where gold still hangs from the ears of trees and fire has not yet burned the bodies of the dead. As in “Intro to Lit,” grief extends even to the memory of youthful love, to the “notes in the margins, hieroglyphics / from a lost age.”
Crooker’s questions ask what most others never dare to delve into. In “Ashes,” she mourns her mother’s body:
all I wanted
to do was gather up every gritty particle,
every chip of bone, then mix them with my bare
hands, using sand and mud, saliva and tears,
and bring her back, my own personal golem.
How could I have let her sift out of my fingers,
grain by grain?
And later, “How can she be gone?”
Such questions emerge through the conduit of imagery and apt metaphor. In “Grief,” Crooker images a river: “I am here, stuck in the middle, water parting / around my ankles, moving downstream.” Like any seasoned host, Crooker pairs her experiences before serving them; hence, contradictions blend and nuanced flavors of emotion emerge. In regards to her mother’s approaching death, Crooker states in two sequential poems: “I want this sweetness to linger / on her tongue, because the days are growing shorter / now, and night comes on, so quickly” (“All Saints”), although she knows that “I might as well carry sugar in my hands; / grain by grain, she sifts away” (“My Mother’s Body Knits Itself into a Nest of Pain”).
Crooker arranges Gold in four sections, moving her from a full-bellied fall of anticipation into a raw labyrinth of loss. The third and fourth sections give space for the speaker to explore the vast expanse unto which grief extends, bleeding into experiences of art and memory. Artwork by Dufy and Giblin, Scripture verses, and even the game of Monopoly weave themselves into her poetry, refocusing with fresh wit the lens of loss.
And Crooker kneads Gold with the determined fingers of one who has lost much. Her mother’s absence permeates the collection like yeast. However, whimsical and deep poetry rises from a long and complex mourning process. Gold is best read as a cohesive piece; without such an understanding, the poet’s grief may seem like sporadic islands in her stream of consciousness. Grief is the spark by which “Everything burns” (“Leaf Light”), and the fire does not blaze a tidy trail. Because Gold initially addresses a mother’s death, the arc of the collection peaks early and trails off slowly. Repercussions of grief echo in a final section that might have been more effective if placed earlier in the collection.
Nonetheless, Gold piques its reader’s appetite for the flavors of Crooker’s metaphors and her raw emotion that moves like a current from anger to longing to celebration and back again. Crooker writes:
Sometimes, there’s so much death—
the year, the leaves, old friends—it’s hard to hold on
to what anchors us to everyday stuff:
coffee in a mug, buttered toast, the same old sun
And yet she clings to detail. She celebrates sound, as is evidenced by internal rhyme and apt phrasing. She attends to daily pleasures like the phoebe in “Aubade,” which, though “Some of us drag a heavy load / through the day, a sack of should-ofs, or push a bushel / of sorrow up a hill,” returns, “opens his beak and sings.” Crooker also introduces a long-lasting marriage, a relationship that has folded itself further inward, melting each individual like limbs into the other. Their story is a hopeful one, described in “Soft” through bodies full of both vitality and decay:
Our sheets are
flannel, worn thin by erosion. Some nights
we can. Some nights we can’t. Let’s praise
what’s still working. This is every body’s story.
She recognizes, in the midst of loss, a gamut of beauty, from ancestry and stars, to art and gratitude.
As I read, I remembered the poet who passed. I remembered my grandmother, and watching fires burn across Lake Chelan like city lights in a wild night. I keep watching for gold, though it never stays. Maples leaves will turn, and then die. Through her poems, Crooker dares me to affirm that
The house light
turns everything golden, and even though we know
what’s coming, the next act, we start to believe
we can stay here forever in the amber spotlight,
that night’s black velvet curtain will never fall. (“Vaudeville”)
We’re pleased to be giving away a copy of Gold to one of our readers. Write a comment below and we’ll pick a name and notify the winner on Saturday. Congratulations to Jen Stewart Fueston, who will receive a copy of Gold!
Kyli Sterling Larson is native to Seattle, Washington and received her BA in English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. She now unveils the eccentric creativity of elementary students through California Poets in the Schools and writes poems inspired by the whimsy of her experiences. She has a persistent admiration for poets, activists, and horse whisperers, and aspires to live out each of these vocations with an open spirit and her husband Tucker.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.