Book Review

Those who follow Wordgathering know Barbara Crooker as the author of poems centered around her son's autism; however, Crooker is a poet whose range encompasses, as the title of her most recent book suggests, much, much More. The subject of this book is the tension between the sort of existential longing that almost all human beings feel and the need to be able to accept what ordinary life offers as the answer to what it means to be human.

This leitmotif pervades More for its entire length, beginning with the first poem, "How the Trees on Summer Nights Turn into a Dark River," which ends:

A thin comma moon rises orange, a skinny slice of melon,
so delicious I could drown in its sweetness. Or eat the whole
thing, down to the rind. Always, this hunger for more.

Each successive section of the book plays with this theme down to the last line of the final poem of the book: "I want all this to last."

Although every one of the four sections of the book is handled somewhat differently and, in the case of the third section may even seem to contrast with the others, one of the pleasures of reading More is following the various permutations of the motif, discovering the way it emerges in different contexts and the tools the author uses to bring it forth.

The first five poems of the book begin in the midst of nature: sunset over a river, a cardinal’s call in the evening, a stone in the hand, a goldfish’s song from across a creek, finches at a thistle feeder. Each is a small meditation and, in the case of "Sanctus" the clear connection of the natural world to the spiritual. One can almost feel Wordsworth hiding in the bushes. Crooker, however, does not feel the world is too much with us. Quite the contrary, she revels in it. Her poems turn to the enjoyment of the quotidian in life, moving on to poems about a salt container, olive oil and her addictive nemesis, chocolate – the James Dean of food. These are followed by two especially effective poems about her daughter’s accident and coma. The first section ends in "Narrative," a strong poem that manages to synthesize much of what she has been offering the reader thus far and – if there were any doubt about it – nail home her theme.

The hungry heart wants more: another
ten years with the man you love, even though you’ve
had thirty; one more night rinsed in moonlight…
One more book, one more story,
as if all the words weren’t already written, as if all the plots
haven’t been used, as if we didn’t know the ending already,
as if this time, we thought it could turn out differently.

The next section of the book continues the sense of symmetry found in the first. It begins on the west coast watching a young surfer in the sun and the possibilities of catching that perfect wave and ends at the edge of a cold, gray winter sea where "the blonde/ grasses bowed low in the wind but did not break." Readers get a larger glimpse of Crooker’s personal life both at home and abroad including, for readers who do not know, some brief references to her son’s autism. The center piece of this part of the volume, however, is "The Mother Suite." It is worth the price of the book alone. Eschewing overcharged emotional language, Crooker shows how the details of ordinary relationships can construct a sequence that leads the reader into her own shoes and, paradoxically in doing so, she universalizes her experiences. She can say candidly

Each day, a struggle
to fill up her lungs. I’m tired of the doctors
and their weather of lies

yet not let her words lapse into the maudlin or cliché. Just as important, she does not see her mother’s life or death as a tragedy. Just the opposite. There is a refreshing stoicism that serves to heighten the value of life, both her mother’s and life generally. Poets who decide to write about disability or illness would spare the world a lot of bad, stereotype-inducing poetry if they were to read "The Mother Suite" first.

In the third part of the book, Crooker appears to do a 180. Rather than seek meaning from nature – the author turns toward art. Section three is entirely ekphrastic poetry. It takes a while before the reader sees the continuities. The first is continuity in style or, more specifically, approach. The first poems in the book began with an observation from nature – the sunset, a cardinal’s call, a stone – and metamorphose into some insight about the nature of human life. Similarly, the poems that open section three, begin with a specific painting in which the observer sees some aspect of herself that unfolds into a more general understanding of life. Moreover, the paintings, like her poems about ordinary life, give Crooker the specific details she needs to avoid vague language even when she universalizes her experiences.

The second continuity is in theme. The motif of human finitude is still there but this time it is spatial rather than temporal. Reflecting on Magritte’s landscape "The Battle of the Argonne" , the poet writes "You can’t see us in the painting…but we’re there in the shadows." Her vision moves from what is man made, whether a town or a war, to the stone brought down by glaciers which are shown on by the same sun now as they were thousands of years ago. In doing so, she unites time and space.

"The Young Girls, the Yellow Dress, and the Scottish Dress", on a painting of Matisse explores the unity of time space as represented in the biological memory of DNA. Such memory has two prongs.

Behind us
There’s a wall of solid red, the way I imagine
the walls of the heart must be, that thick muscle
that keeps on beating in spite of everything,
like a faithful watch, that keeps the rivers
of the arteries flowing, bears their steady
freight. And then there’s memory,
that other river, the one that meanders,
slips underground, reappears in a meadow
where you least expect it. It’s a far country,
the past, and we need a passport to enter
its provinces, red oxblood with gold letters,
stamped with a blue circled visa, again
and again and again.

Writing such as this grounds poetry in the body. It is an anchoring that writers who write about disability strive to achieve. Like the paintings in a skillfully constructed art exhibit, each piece in this section of More can stand on its own, but it is the juxtaposition of the pieces that add an extra dimension.

The short final section of poems is a thematic summary and reiteration of More’s themes, but it introduces new material as well. Particularly effective is the pairing of two poems "Ghazal: One Summer" and "First Born," a delicate and beautiful poem. Both shed light on Crooker’s past and now, the reader knowing something of what was being withheld, Crooker’s invocation to value ordinary life seems fuller, too. As she says,

The horizon
where the sun broke through,
is no longer a circle. It all comes back
to you.

A major value of More is that, despite being wide-ranged, it can provide some specific insights into how to approach writing about disability. In addition to the avoidance of the tragedy stereotype as she does in "The Mother Suite" and the grounding of poetry in the body, as n "The Young Girls, The Yellow Dress and the Scottish Dress" there at least two more. The first is the borrowing and adapting of the imagery from classical mythology to create contemporary images of disability, an approach suggested by disabilities scholar and poet Petra Kuppers. Crooker’s application of this idea comes from her use of the myth of Demeter as a metaphor for her daughter’s coma, a poem that begins "It was November when my middle daughter/ descended to the underworld." Another, recommended by another theorist of disability poetry, Jim Ferris is to tie writing about disability to main stream poets of the past by appropriating or alluding to their techniques. One of those Ferris mentions is Gerard Manly Hopkins. Though not in a poem specifically about disability, Crooker shows how that sense of recognition and connection might be invoked in "Finches, Little Pats of Butter on the Wing." (A poem, that also takes a shot at political correctness.)

And now, everything burst into bloom,
the great bouquets of trees, our largest
perennials: double ruffled cherries, purple-
leafed plum, flowering pear

Can anyone who has ever taken a high school literature class ever read those lines without thinking of Hopkins?

More, published by, C & K Press, is the work of an experienced and polished poet. Those looking for cutting-edge, experimental poetry are not going to find it here, and it is hard to imagine Crooker taking one of her pieces to a poetry slam, but for those who enjoy well-crafted, poetry that is insightful while avoiding clichés, More will be rewarding. It is the kind of poetry that calls a reader back again and again. There may be nothing new under the sun, but that does not mean that ordinary life is without freshness, joy or meaning. More embodies all of these. Crooker's book is available from the publisher or through Amazon.