Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
One of the many definitions of poetry is that it uses elevated language to engender emotions in the reader. One of the oldest forms is the elegy, examples of which can be found in ancient religious texts. The eloquent and moving elegy sung by David at the death of Jonathan in the Book of Samuel is a fine example. Usually, the focus is on the deceased with a recitation of their virtues.
Barbara Crooker’s collection of poetry, Gold, uses this classical poetic form to explain the changes in worldview experienced by those who mourn. The book is constructed around the death of the poet’s mother, a traumatic rite of passage that we each experience. She divides the poems into 4 parts, beginning with her mother’s last illness. The advance of the illness finds the poet praying, asking:
“…..Will I be strong
Enough to row across the ocean of loss
When my turn comes to take the oars?”
The second section of the book is the interaction between the poet and her mother’s last day. In some of the most eloquent poetry in the book she recalls her mother’s final moments and how she refused hospice food yet called for her “Peeps”. Like the sharing of an agape meal the poet finds the candy and
“…I ripped open the last packet
Of Peeps, their little marshmallow bodies,
Their sugary blood on my hands, and gave a piece
To each of us. It melted, grainy fluff
On our tongues, and it was good.”
Parts three and four explore the boundaries of the poet’s grief. The imagery of water is used as a cleansing agent but also as obstructive, as in her poem “Grief” Where she wades through her grief as through a small creek, ultimately refusing to continue because, despite the bounty and comforts on the far bank, once she completes the journey her mother will truly be gone.
Occasionally Ms. Crooker injects humor into the poems like a funny story about the deceased at their wake. She paraphrases one of John Donne’s poems, playing on the word “batter” with the startling lines
“…Batter my heart, three
personed God, dip it in flour, salt and milk;
fry it up, good and golden as this afternoon,
one shining lake of light.”
It is indeed rare that one finds a reference to a Divine sous chef among the mourning bouquets but this is yet another example of Ms. Crooker’s artistry.
The final section of the book, as in the previous section, contains the miscellany of memory. One very effective device to sustain this is the use of ekphrastic poetry to trigger the memories. The final poem of the collection, “Zucchini”, brings the mourning to a close and, again, the poet uses her stunning talent to end the work. The poem is set in a garden where the poet looks at a row of zucchini ready for harvesting. Midway throughout the poem, we are again given the memory of her mother and her other ancestors harvesting as they did for generations in Italy and in America. The first part of the poem, from it’s very title, uses the letter “Z” in many of the lines. The final stanza finds the poet
Patiently for the season to whirl
Around again, bringing the start
Of spring training, the sun, ascending
Like the letter A, rosy in the east.”
From omega to alpha the season of grief folds into the movement of the seasons, the beginning of life, the continuation of living.
Gold is a masterful work where the journey through sorrow can move from a Philadelphia museum to the Loyalsock Creek with a humanity that is aware that there will be hope. The beauty of the poetry and the honesty of the emotion is stunning. This is a book worth reading and keeping for those moments when our own personal emotions become too much to bear alone. Ms. Crooker may be speaking about the dead but it is her clear and skillful voice that explains it to the living.
Garrison Keilor reads Barbara Crooker's poem on The Writer's Almanack: