Book Review: Les Fauves (Barbara Crooker)

Reviewed by Lynda McKenny Lambert

Les Fauves, poetry by Barbara Crooker, is a series of sixty-two poems divided into 4 sections. The poems are inspired by paintings made between 1899 and 1937. The Fauves movement – the name means "The Wild Beasts" – existed from 1888 to 1906. By extending the timeline for art works, she is able to show the larger picture that includes art and artists who followed on the heels of the Fauves. Crooker's literary exploration begins with the roots of modern art and her judicious selections of key paintings.

In Section 1 of the book, Crooker chose several Matisse paintings to explore. Henri-Émile-Benoît Matisse (1869–1954), is the most notable artist in the Fauvist avant-garde movement which, included painters, printmakers and draftsmen. Crooker wrote a series of poems based on the paintings in such a way that the careful reader will see the paintings through language alone. We can view paintings through words and feel the movements of the artist's brush strokes, textures and stunning colors.

Sections 2 and 3 of Les Vauves takes us well into the 20th and 21st centuries. Section 4 is the final section of the book. At this point the author returns to specific artists and their art works. We find poems inspired by the art of Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Seurat, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque. Readers are moved forward into the Post-Impressionist period.

From the initial poems, we enter into the world of postmodernism with the use of dual languages. By using both English and French, she tells the stories and histories of two worlds. Two voices are used to tell a story, in many poems. The artists speak to us through the language of art. The poet speaks to us through words.

Two languages; two cultures; two distinctly different stages in creative developments. Barbara Crooker defines a post-modernist world view while, at the same time, glancing through the lens of the Modernists – Les Fauves. The book is a collection of exquisite contemporary poems, inspired by paintings and drawings. In a sense, Barbara Crooker is creating new poetry out of the art techniques used in the paintings that were created over a century ago. I was intrigued by this journey from the first poem I encountered and I wanted to read more!

I think that by choosing to write the poems in 2 languages, she emphasizes the importance of words in gaining understanding. For the reader, like me, who can only read English, I am shut out from completely understanding the poems. This is done intentionally for it affirms the value and necessity of clear communication. The post-modern technique of writing in multiple languages, brings new understanding to the reader. Words alone can be inadequate. Both art and poetry require the reader to know the language of the piece being considered. Art has its own language, as does literature.

By choosing the narrow time span for her artists and their paintings, she sets the historical context preceding the new art movement, as well as focusing on works by artists that followed the Fauves. Crooker combined imagery from the past with her contemporary thoughts and musings to create pictures of constellated time.

The 2 main aspects of the Fauve artists are primacy of color and a strong desire to define Modernism. I believe Crooker chose the particular period as a critique on Modernism by use of Post-modernist devices. I'll examine a selection of poems with those goals in mind.

All artworks discussed in the poems in Section 1 are by Henri Matisse. In the opening poem, "Landscape at Collioure, 1905," readers are introduced to Henri Matisse's art, and to the Fauves, by a painting that was completed near the end of this particular art movement. It was a smart choice for Crooker because this painting has all of the elements necessary for a Fauvist masterpiece.

The poem replicates Matisse's experience of being outside, with a focus on the Earth, and sky. This poem immediately gives us the primary philosophical requirement for a Fauve painting – the celebration of bold, even shocking and garish color.

Application of color is a physical act and the picture is created in ways that are new. Vivid hues and dynamic values are selected to show the artists feelings and emotions about the subject he is painting. Grass can be "the shade of grape soda, " or – "an ooze of electric jaundice. " The sky can become "a violet slither. " Trees dance and leaves can sing. Pigments are selected according to the desires of the artist. Forms and textures are laid down in thick layers. Color is a building block, it is like looking at architecture that is built from the bottom up. The painting invites the viewer to touch it to feel the energy of the artist at work.

Readers are given a window to peer through into the painted world of Matisse where we find one of the most prominent themes of the Fauve movement – voyeurism and looking. We view this world through the eyes of the poet as she is viewing the Matisse landscape. Soon, we realize we are privy to the thoughts of the poet and we entered into her contemporary world at the same time as she describes the scene. Listen for the description of the senses and the colors:

Landscape at Collioure, 1905,

This hillside's the shade of grape soda,
lawn an ooze of electric jaundice,
and the sky's a violet slither. The red,
blue, and green trees are dancing, supple
and sinuous, and the leaves are singing, a riot
of light. He squeezed out red-orange like plastic
explosives. Painting is an act of belief. (p. 6)

Notice that Inside and Outside merge – Crooker focused on the entire landscape first. That was followed by noticing the lawn; Finally, the sky; trees; leaves. We are moved from the wide-angle view of the world, to the micro view of the smallest parts. Nothing is too small to describe. In the final line, the poet speaks the words of Matisse to describe the act of painting which is "an act of belief." For Crooker, I believe, she would say that writing is an act of belief.

"Figs" the final poem of Section 1 adequately describes the feelings Crooker has about the past artists and writers. She uses the "poetic I" as she describes an encounter with "a young woman I'd met the night/ before"

The woman offers her "a ripe fig" They split the fig and share it. It has beauty and tastes good. Could the woman in this poem represent the past – that was well developed and fresh, like the ripe plum? Later in the book, she will look at contemporary writers and artists. The Fauves left us their discoveries and their drive to keep going. Keep experimenting. Keep making art. Keep writing. But, what have we learned from them, I found myself thinking.

Notice how Crooker described the physical aspects of the fig in Fauvist textures and colors:

"Dark violet chocolate
with a greenish flesh, blood-red pulp,"

The "ripe fig," is a metaphor for the history of thought, language and artistic progress inherited by creators of art and literature. Crooker opens this poem with a quote by The Prophet Mohammed, in which he believes the fig to be worthy of being in Paradise.

Language and grammar combined with history are Post-modernist techniques. The groundwork has been laid in the poems of Section 1. This is described as: "The seeds embroidered our teeth."

The Fauves planted the seeds of modernity.

In Sections 2 and 3 the poet steps into the world of pop culture and politics. She writes about a variety of famous people by weaving a number of short lines from the Bible, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and several early television shows or movies. As I read, I became aware of feeling like people and places were being erased – even trivialized.

Crooker opens up the world of fame and success that we encounter daily on television and on social media. But, she also digs up our own past. A poem from Section 2 that we can all relate to, I think is "This American Life." And, even in this poem with a focus on the 1950s, I find the images of Matisse who could be standing there surveying his own Fauve worldview.

July, and the sun
beating down upon the roof.

But tonight, algorithms
be damned, the sun's going down
with a sizzle, and look, there's the moon,
bathing us all in its false zirconia,
its dreamy zaftig zero light.

Ah, yes! I grew up in the 50s so this poem is a time capsule. It made me go back to examine so many things and I feel like I just dug it up and laid out the contents. I remember it all now. This American Life "e; the 1950s music, clothing, foods, dance and war. Was it all a "false and dreamy light?" Is there "no exit plan?"

In Section 4, nineteen paintings that date from 1888-1932 are chosen. The author includes additional members of The Fauves to provide a contrast with art that came prior to The Fauves, as well as art created after the Fauves. This section feels like an art history discussion in the form of poetry. By layers of ideas, careful language and imagery construction, meaning emerges.

Ink (p59), one of the poems inspired by a drawing by Vincent van Gogh begins:

The last line of the poem is a quote of Van Gogh's.
~Vincent Van Gogh: The Drawings,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005

When I read this poem, I could feel the motion of van Gogh's hands and the heft of the tools and paper he used in his artwork. I could envision the beating he gave to that sheet of paper as he created the drawing: "cross-hatched the paperwork fields/ of Arles…trees in winter"". Crooker speaks in the poem of the "bones of the paintings – the things that came before Paper and Ink, cheaper than canvas and paint."

Could the Fauves have broken new ground in painting if they had not seen the work of Vincent van Gogh? His oozing and explosive use of color applied in a frenzy of passion? It was he who "came before." I believe that Crooker is well aware she stands in a place that was opened up for her by those who came before her, too. In this collection of poems: "Drawing is the root of everything."

Title: Les Fauves
Author: Barbara Crooker
Publisher: C&R Press
Publication Date: 2017


Lynda Lambert is the author of Concerti: Psalms for the Pilgrimage (Kota Press, 2003). Her newest collection of essays and poems is Walking by Inner Vision: Stories & Poems (DLDBooks, Denver Colorado, 2017). Lambert is a retired professor of fine arts and humanities. She is an actively exhibiting visual artist – mixed-media fiber art. And, writes full time at her home in a small village in western Pennsylvania.