Comment on this
The Book of Kells
by Barbara Crooker
52 poems, 87 pages
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-5326-0636-6
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-5326-0638-0
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-5326-0637-3
Publisher: Cascade Books, An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers
To Order: www.wipfandstock.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
As the New Testament book of Revelation opens, we find Saint John exiled on the island
of Patmos, a desolate, windswept rock located off the coast of Greece, in the Aegean Sea.
Here, under austere conditions John experiences God through a series of visions. Here,
John must work through the meaning of his life in terms of his faith at great risk and
personal cost. I'm reminded of this scene as Barbara Crooker's new collection, "The
Book of Kells" ties together similar themes of faith, doubt, hardship, beauty, mystery and
above all a commitment to artistry as applied to preserving the sacred Scriptures.
Kells is a town in Ireland. The Book of Kells was produced by monks cloistered in the
monastery there. This lavishly decorated copy of the four gospels, written in Latin, was
completed early in the 9th century.
Crooker organizes her collection in four sections; each section adds a fresh layer of
insight to the composition, setting, faith and significance of this unique work.
You won't want to skip over Crooker's prologue. Two poems, "Samhain" and
"Newgrange" set a tone of darkness, A single candle flickers,/drowns in its own wax. She
couples this initial darkness with two searching questions,
What would they make
of our device-laden lives, fossil-fueled cars, over-stocked larders?
Who stands in the dark and listens now, gaping at the stars?
Who indeed? It is evident to this reviewer that the poet herself is such a person. Crooker,
during a lengthy retreat commissioned by the Tyrone Guthrie Center, immerses herself in
the lives and struggles of those monks who
With quills and ink of iron gall on folded vellum,
monks in their sells labored in hives of stone,
producing pages that glistened like honey,
sweetening the word of God.
In poem after poem sacred response to that which is holy is reinforced by Crooker. In a
glosa poem which imbeds lines by Pablo Neruda
They sat on hard benches in stone beehives
perched above the immaculate sea
on the steepest, most wind-battered peak.
Neruda's imbedded lines are drawn from his, "In Praise of Ironing." The way Crooker
uses these lines is worth the price of the book. Glosa poems (poems in which lines from
another poem are imbedded usually in the last lines of stanzas) appear throughout the
work. Poets selected by Crooker for this purpose, in addition to Neruda, include Seamus
Heaney, Dennis O'Driscoll, and W.B. Yeats.
Crooker pays attention to details involving ink pigments, landscape, animals, and plants.
In doing so she brings to life not only the people who gave us The Book of Kells, but
their surroundings as well. The ornamentation detail in Kells is mirrored by Crooker's
detailed love of animals in rural Ireland. In her poem "Interlinear" which I quote in full,
Crooker reveals how everyday life is incorporated in one's life of faith
Let's praise the agile little animals
that flit here and there in the Vulgate text,
who can wedge in small spaces: the moth
in initial P, antenna flickering outside the line.
Or the monk on his horse, trotting right off the page.
Look, there's an otter, his mouth full of fish, and here,
a blue cat sits watchfully by. A gorgeous green lizard
slithers in the text, 72r, while a wolf pads his way
through 76v. Its whole barnyard: chickens and mice,
hounds and hares, snakes, eagles, and stags. Animals
as decoration. Animals as punctuation. Things seen
and unseen. So let us praise all of God's creatures,
including the small and inconsequential, all of us,
interlinear, part of the larger design.
Reviewer's note: the "r" and "v" designations indicate left hand and right hand pages in
In such poems as "The Alphabet" and "Capitals" Crooker offers further insight about
So many open letters filled in with designs;
did the monks, like us, doodle all day?
In the Book of Kells, 2000 capitals, no two alike.
Animals, humans, plants twisted and interlaced
to form letters: petals, stems, branching patterns.
In "The Alphabet", the poet describes the magic seen by the monks in the very shapes of
the letters. Decorating Kells involved simple materials, ink into animal hide, the whole
copying process, in a sense combines earth's concreteness with Heaven's mystery.
I mentioned earlier that Crooker's collection opens on a note of darkness. The poet is a
creature of light. Through original poems that employ a wide range of poetic devices:
simile, metaphor, personification, interesting titles, and specialty poems such as the
Ogham, a medieval technique for writing short messages, Crooker moves steadfastly
toward the light, the source of life and the grounding of life on faith's solid ground.
I hasten to add that though the poet's Christ-centered devotion speaks for itself, she
writes with sensitivity toward a diverse audience.
In the poem Easter Sunday, 2016, which echoes Yeats' "Easter Sunday, 1916", Crooker
lays back the light toward which "The Book of Kells" has been moving all along
We leave in a downpour, and then the sun comes out.
An unironic rainbow, translucent and fragile,
follows us on a road that had been cratered
and bombed during The Troubles, but is now
paved over, smooth macadam all the way home.
No matter where you are on your personal journey, Barbara Crooker's, "The Book of
Kells" will move you ever-closer toward home.