Reviews & Interviews
The Upper Case May, 2011
The Not-so-Secret-Life-of-Metaphor by Shirley Stevens
In his latest book I is an Other, James Geary explores metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world. He maintains that metaphor breaks up common relationships and reorganizes uncommon combinations. He suggests that metaphor makes the mind into a snow globe—most beautiful, most interesting, and most itself when it is, as Elvis said, “all shook up.”
The author invites us to consider another translation of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum, which is traditionally translated, “I think; therefore, I am.” Geary looks at the etymology of cogito, which comes from agitare, the root of the word “agitate.” Geary quotes Wyndham Lewis: “Laughter is the mind sneezing.” Have you ever considered laughter this way?
Calling language “fossil poetry,” Geary suggests that we utter about six metaphors a minute. We don’t realize that metaphors are a part of our everyday lives. We use them unconsciously, as when we say, “I see what you mean.” We do not literally see anything, but we convey that we understand someone.
Metaphors are active in proverbs and parables. Whey they are overused, they become clichés like “talk in circles” or “you took the words right out of my mouth.” But when they are fresh, they can make us see in a new way, as in the Chinese proverb “It is hard to dismount from a tiger.”
The poet Wallace Stevens reminds us that metaphor creates a new reality. The novelist George Eliot adds, “We seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying something else.”
Geary suggests that metaphor creates a new kind of logic. Poets and non-poets alike think about the world in fluid ways. Metaphor serves as a bridge between the strange and the familiar. When John Donne wrote, “No man is an island,” he obviously knew that no human is a land mass. But the poet wanted us to have another frame of reference and consider the connection between the individual and society.
We might profit from examining metaphors in several poems by one poet, Barbara Crooker. In her poem “Listen,” Barbara writes:
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in your mouth, cut hay in your nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
and then it blooms again.
List the metaphors Barbara uses. I count ten, and I may have missed one.
What is the effect of some of her metaphors? The poet says she can’t tell us what prayer is and then proceeds to show us in the meadow’s breath, the blue coal of life, and the cardinals’ red song dancing in our blood. Will we look at the moon in the same way after we have considered its blossoming into a peony then shrinking to a sliver of garlic?
Barbara ends her poem “Climbing the Jade Mountain” with the lines:
When nights overtake us,
we lie down in a dry
river bed, with a stone
for a pillow. Morning
draws her curtains.
We begin again.
The poet writes about being on a journey and lying down in a river bed (a metaphor). She has a stone for a pillow. We think of Jacob, who also slept with a stone for a pillow. The speaker wakes as “Morning draws her curtains.” In this image, the speaker addresses a new beginning.
In a third poem, “Writer’s Colony, Spring,” Crooker concludes:
Here, let the song rise in my
throat, come up from underground limestone caverns, like
the small warbling streams of the Shenandoah, may they run
in rivulets, cascades of melody, whole laughing brooks
of words, until you cannot tell the singer from the song.
As we read these words aloud, we feel the song streaming in rivulets, cascades, and laughing brooks of words. Surely metaphor helps us to connect singer and song.
Review: More Apr, 2011
reviewed by Phebe Davidson in the Journal of New Jersey Poets:
Barbara Crooker, in More, which is her third published collection, offers readers a somewhat different orientation, presenting an ecstatic world where the sun looses “its light like a jazz / saxophone (“The Sun Lays Down Its Light”), where a stone “revels in its stoniness” as it “sings its one long song. / Something about eternity. / Something about the sea” (“Geology”), and where a mourning dove that just might be the Holy Ghost could be “calling your name, / sweet and low / You, you, you” (“Sanctus”). And as the poet reminds us, it is never enough. What we want is the same thing we wanted as children:
. . . . 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.
Because Crooker knows the world better than its beauties might suggest, we are reminded that even while the sun is laying down its light, “My old friend and my mother begin their last days” (“The Sun Lays Down Its Light”), that a contemporary Demeter must watch her daughter fall from “her horse straight into Coma’s arms” (“Demeter), and though the daughter does eventually emerge in “a slippery rebirth” (“Demeter”), the light that comes with her is “from a different world” (“Demeter”). Because love of the world persists, even in the face of such pain, because friends and mothers die, because the daughter is unfailingly loved, the book’s central question becomes
can a person hope for, in this world of a thousand sorrows,
than a life that was made for song, than a body
sometimes able to take wing?
(“My Life as a Song Sparrow”)
The answer that Crooker supplies, both by her own work and by the ekphrastic inspiration she draws from such notables as Magritte, Matisse, Kahlo, and even Edward Hopper, lies in lives lived with art, lives that mingle close observation with a lyrical poignancy.
The flat sand shines as if varnished in a painting. Underfoot,
strewn, are broken bits and pieces, deep indigo mussels, whorls
of whelk, chips of purple and white wampum, hinges of quahog,
broken, washed up here, stranded. The light pours down, a rinse
of lemon on a cold plate. All of us, broken, some way
or other. All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light.
Crooker’s talent for finding and entering such brilliance, for sharing with her readers some embodiment of the joy that entails, is outstanding in contemporary poetry.
More Feb, 2011
reviewed by Penelope Scambly Schott in Calyx
When I finished reading Barbara Crooker’s third full-length book More, I wanted more more--more of this poet’s appreciation, her humor, her firm perception of our daily world. This is poetry of long experience as a middle-class woman in our society. Any young woman could read it and learn; in fact many young women should read it, but only a woman who has gone through middle age could write it. The speaker has learned about loss, compromise, and appreciation of the joys that are still available. This poet’s world is complex, often difficult, and deeply rewarding--but not endless. The speaker doesn’t want more stuff, more glory. She wants more life. The desire for more comes with the awareness that even the best life will end.
Each of the four sections begins with a quote about the greed of the human heart.
One: Everybody’s got a hungry heart. Bruce Springsteen
Two: There is no remedy to love but to love more. Henry David Thoreau
Three: It is the artist’s duty to create a world that is more beautiful,
simpler, and more consoling than the one we live in. Vincent Van Gogh
Four: All I ever wanted was more. anonymous six word memoir
In the first poem of section one, the poet quotes Apollinaire: What isn’t given to love/ is so much wasted and goes on to ask, I wonder what I haven’t given yet. During the course of the book, the reader discovers how much the speaker has already given to love--love for the birds, beautiful food (don’t miss the poem on chocolate and how you should always bet on the noir), art, and other human beings, especially her family. This first poem ends with Always the hunger for more. Meanwhile, over the celebration lurks the shadow of loss. The cardinal sings vite, vite, as the speaker’s mother diminishes; the speaker’s daughter almost dies, and although she survives, nothing is ever quite safe again.
In “Surfer Girl,” the opening of section two, Crooker creates a variant on the ars poetica. Despite being athletic as a sofa, she seeks balance and rhythm, choosing my line like I choose these words. Indeed, rhythm, line, and language are all well chosen--vernacular but fresh and often witty. The diction is mostly ordinary speech--few unusual words, but a natural music. The poet plays with tone, often varying it in one poem. In a richness of irony and deep seriousness, she celebrates her marriage. Like the famous plum-stealer, William Carlos Williams, she starts out with humor:
Excuse me. I didn’t mean to eat
that last piece of cheesecake
when it called my name
at three am.
And she goes on to say with simple, reliable passion, that she would still choose the same man even if she could have anticipated
...the future, the damaged child,
the bodies that creak and sag. (“Excuses, Excuses”)
Section three is full of paintings, mostly by the French Impressionists, about whom Crooker wrote extensively in an earlier chapbook. Along Raoul Dufy’s “Promenade in Nice,” the waves rattled the stones like someone washing/ chain mail, or a woman searching/ for something she’d lost. What has been lost is respite from an autistic child, the chance to be a glamorous woman. For Crooker, France is travel to freedom--like slipping into a dress of silk sky.... The poem concludes: The world of travel had licked its multicolored stamps / pasted them all over my skin. (“Nice”) Here the more in question is more sensuality, more travel, and, as always, more time.
Finally, section four picks up many of the earlier themes. Crooker returns to her beloved birds as she asks what more anyone could want than a life that was made for song, than a body / sometimes able to take wing?(“My Life as a Song Sparrow”) In such a poem, even the language takes flight.
And in the final poem, the speaker concludes,
...I don’t want to change a thing...
I want the sun to run down my face like honey.
I want the wind to kiss me. I want all this to last. (“Holsteins”)
The book ends, but the writer’s enthusiastic appreciation will stay with you. These are poems of delight and affirmation. Enjoy them.