Reviews & Interviews



Les Fauves , 2018
Rick Campbell, in Kestrel

In the spirit of full disclosure, as they say on NPR, I have admired Barbara Crooker's poetry for many years. I read her second book, Line Dance,, when it was still a contest submission. I admit too that I don't generally like ekphrstic poems or poems using forms such as the abecedarian. Despite my amall-mindedness, I agreed to review the collection.

I'm happy I di. The poems in Les Fauves are quite good because, as all good poems do, they transcend the constrictions that formal requirements often impose. In Les Fauves, Crooker's poems transcend their ekphrastic subjects--it's as if the paintings that many of these poems are about are the triggering subjects, in Richard Hugo's term, and the poems go on to discuss the emotions and trials of the lived, experienced world. Granted, the triggering subject of Matisse's Pansies does not disappear from the poem as a goose in flight might, but the pansies are not just a still life reproduced in a poem. Crooker brings the pansies and the painting alive when they impassion her heart and she says to her partner, "so jump up / and kiss me, O my darling. Paint your sweet / lips over my skin." Crooker's ekphrastic poems, as poet George Bilgere remarks, make the reader fall in love again with the "sweet sweet world."

Sections II and II of Les Fauves are not about paintings, and instead of strolling through French museums, we are in Pennsylvania, "home of potato filling, cabbage slaw / shoofly pie." In an abecedarian poem that remains true to its complicated and sometimes restrictive formal rules, we are delighted to hear, "Zero in on what's important. Be bop a looma / a love bam boom." We are surprised by the sober revelation of "How did love thy neighbor come to this / Sunday morning's slow march." In "This American Life," Annette's Beach Blanket Bingo life becomes redefined by the Vietnam War's no exit plan: "You're only nineteen. / Your chances of getting out are just / about none." Yes, Barbara Crooker's poems are witty and playful. One poem celebrates words scrambled and respelled--atlases becomes se sail and straw becomes warts--but word play comes home to ask, "the tide can turn / to edit, in the link of an eye. Which / will you choose: heart or earth?

The mission and blessing of this collection of poems is to bridge, to connect (or reconnect?) works of art to our oh-so-human lives. "The Jetty at Cassis, Opus 198, 1889," which begins with a discourse on Signac and Seurat and the techniques of Divisionism, becomes a love poem when the speaker remembers "you and I, in that small hotel. . . Nothing to wear / to bed that night but ourselves."

This is why I can ready any and all of Barbara Crooker's poems--for their transcendence and their revelations about the human condition and this world, sweet an sometimes troubling, that we find ourselves in.



Les Fauves , 2018
by Geoffrey Peck in Journal of New Jersey Poets
Barbara Crooker's Les Fauves begins with a series of ekphrastic poems that examine the "wild beasts" of Fauvism as her title alludes. But the collection naturally moves from an analysis of Post-Impressionist paintings to an examination of the impact of art, its symbiotic currents, and the way we consume and produce to try and understand the world. A seasoned poet, Crooker's dexterity is always visible as Les Fauves includes forms and schemes that range from sonnets, ghazals, and abecedaries to anagrams, palindromes, and pointed poems on grammar. While these shifting forms cover equally shifting subject matter, the heart of Les Fauves permeates the collection and allows the reader to join in the exploration of the impact of art, the imprint we make on each other, and how we attempt to absorb and repay them both.

As Crooker notes, this collection began during a residency in Auvillar, France, and the first ekphrastic poems of Part I display the exuberant, if not irreverent, energy of an artist beginning a new project. In "Landscape at Collioure, 1905," Crooker describes Matisse's hillside as the "shade of grape soda, lawn an ooze of electric jaundice" with leaves "a riot of light" thanks to Matisse having "squeezed out red-orange like plastic explosives." As Part I develops, this exuberance recedes, or at least retreats to self-examination. In poems like "Leaving," a moment is shared at a café between lovers only for the narrator to note "But you're going home, and I'm staying here" while "Across the street, strands / of jazz spill from the one lit window, / dissolve in the tall cold glass of night."

With Part II, the reader finds themselves back stateside with a set of poems that reflect an American artist reckoning with the divide between French art and American life. "Scrimshaw" begins with a conversational tone that reads as an artist drawing back the veil for the reader as she lists her All-American origins of "cabbage slaw" and "shoofly pie" juxtaposed with her time in Paris eating "oysters in the raw / with brown bread, unsalted butter, wine the color of pale straw. . .For a country girl, this is shock and awe; even a folded napkin, a work of art." The beauty she sees in French culture cast against life in America inevitably leads to a series of poems on the creative process and the English language that bridges parts II and III. In poems like "Your," grammar becomes the object of the artist's frustration: "All this fuss and flap over usage, / the headline blaring Truck Crash on I-78 / Driver found Laying in the road; I mean, we all know he wasn't a giant mutant chicken, / don't we?" Her layered solecisms build with claims that "Grammars only for the picky, the stickler's / the cross-you're-tee school teacher's" but they also come to reflect the artist's struggle to find that perfect form of expression that so often remains elusive.

By Part Iv, we return to the ekphrastic poems, but the tone has shifted from our first glimpse of Matisse's hillside. "Field with Wheat Stacks" examines the complexity of love through Van Gogh's painting: "He fell in love with a simple field / of wheat, and I've felt this way, too. . . foolishly in love, even though we know / how it turns out in the end: / snicked by the scythe, burnt / in the furnace of the August / sun, threshed, separated kernel / from chaff." As the last quarter of the collection develops, this meditation on art and love expands to how we reckon with our own transience. Crooker inspects Van Gogh's mindset before his suicide, conjures a cognac-sipping Death, finds release in the beauty of sex, the beauty of the aging body, and struggles with the blunt force of Alzheimer's. In "Women Picking Olives, 889," Crooker uses Van Gogh's painting to the styles and themes of the collection together as the women in the painting remind her of what she's lost in some ineffable way. She focuses on the ladder they use for the picking, seeing it as the divide between heaven and earth, where above them "the sky is full of ashes of roses: / parentheses, ellipses, things we hold onto, / even as they slip away." Les Fauves is contemplative but never brooding, playful while avoiding whimsy, and it develops like a novel whose entwined themes remain in the margins until the closing moments when they swell, intersect, and compel reflection.



Les Fauves , 2018
by Wendy Galgan in Presence

As you would expect from a collection named after the early-twentieth century artists-founders of Fauvism, Barbara Crooker’s Les Fauves (“The Wild Beasts”) contains a number of ekphrastic poems. These works are more than just vivid descriptions of paintings, however; they are touchstones Crooker uses to explore her world.

Les Fauves opens, fittingly, with Matisse. “Landscape at Colllioure, 1905” is the closest to ‘pure’ ekphrasis of any poem in the collection, with its vivid rendering of the “electric jaundice” and “violet slither” within the painting. Yet even here, at the very end of the poem, we move beyond mere description to a moment in which we are given a glimpse of the violent act of creation (“He squeezed out red-orange like plastic / explosives.”) followed by Matisse’s own words: “Painting is an act of belief.” This belief, both the painter’s and the poet’s, ushers in the works that follow.

The collection is divided into four sections. In the first, the speaker of the poems is in France, reveling in both the artwork she is seeing and the sensuous (and sensual) experience of living life as the French do. This life is all color and food and beauty and food, and have I mentioned the food? Cheese, bread, figs, lemons – all find their way into these poems celebrating not only life in France but also the freedom experienced by an American spending time there. In “Auvillar,” the speaker imagines changes to her very body, her “short legs and flabby thighs” are “elongating” to make her more graceful, more French. But it is in “Sixty-Five,” a poem about the continuing joys of sex as we age, that the beauty of real bodies and real life is celebrated. “So your stomach’s not a ridge of washboard abs / or tablettes de chocolat as they say here; mine’s a puddle of warm crme brleé. / Pears ripen slowly as they concentrate their juice. Brie slumps in the shell / of its rind. And both of them, and all of me, are absolument délicieuse.” Here Crooker brings together flesh and food in a way both unapologetically celebratory and deliciously sublime.

Throughout Les Fauves, Crooker addresses – sometimes directly, sometimes not – what it means to be a woman in the world. A group of three poems in this section speaks directly about women’s experiences and society’s expectations. Women, particularly as they grow older, are held to unrealistic expectations especially when it comes to appearances: “But where are we now, in a world that / sneers if our waists pop out in muffin tops? // Has the world spun out of control, or is it spun / out of Lycra?” (“Compare & Contrast”). Women are expected to be demure, not flashy, but Crooker imagines Mae West’s advice to “Forget understatement, nuance, shades of gray. / Be over-the-top, like faux cashmere or sable” (“Against Understatement: A Ghazal”). This advice is difficult to follow, however, because “It’s tough being a woman, feeling you’re an object to be bought, / an elusive quarry, something to be chased and caught, / when you know you’re more than that” (“Women”). You won’t be chased, never mind caught, if you don’t meet society’s idea of what it means to be attractive.

There can be a ‘happy ending,’ though, and the final two poems of the section show us what that ending could be like. “Why I Love Being Married to a Chemist” and “Weather Systems” are love poems which celebrate the true beauty in everyday love, in a long marriage, in a couple with a past and a family and a future. For the speaker and her husband, passion is an integral part of their marriage rather than something mostly remembered fondly but rarely acted upon. In explaining why she loves being married to a chemist, the speaker unequivocally states that a good part of it is sexual:

Because he taught me about sublimation, how
a solid, like ice, can change straight to a gas
without becoming liquid first. Because even
after all this time together, he can still
make me melt.

The poem “Weather Systems,” and section three, end with the image of the speaker warming her cold body against the warmth of her husband:

Even in the dark, you radiate. I am a cold front, a polar low
Coming down from the arctic. And you, why you,
you’re the sun.

While not true ekphrasis, the final line does leave the reader with a clear image not only of a long-married couple joined in love and mutual need, but also of a brilliant, glowing, yellow sun bathing the speaker as she sleeps.

This image provides a subtle segue to the final section of the book, section four, which begins with the poem “The Turning Road, L’Estaque, 1906.” The vibrancy of this painting comes in part from “the banana peel road” which is “paved in sunlight,” a road colored the bright yellow of the sun in a child’s drawing. No longer content to imagine the “powder scent” of flowers (“Pansies, 1918-1919”) or to connect an aspect of the painting with a personal experience as she does in “La Mer Vue Collioure, 1906” (“Here is the sea as Henri saw it, / and we have seen it, too. . .”), for the first time in this collection the speaker of an ekphrastic poem urges the reader (and the speaker herself) to enter the painting fully:

So let’s boogaloo down this road
paved in sunlight. Let’s dance
the tango, and turn up the voltage.
Let’s commit an act of spontaneous
Combustion. Let’s all go down
in flames.

Indeed, the color yellow appears in different iterations throughout the poems in this final section. Again and again, the speaker shows us “the slithery yellows” of “Ears of Wheat, 1890,” “the eternal sunshine of an April Day” in “The Flowering Orchard, 1888,” and how “the sun squeezes lemon / light through the scaffolding” in the “Garden of the Painter at Saint Clair, 1908.” Even the stars in Virginia are “little bits of butter” that “sizzle in night’s cold cast iron / skillet” (“Landscape with Stars, 1905-08”). When yellow is not mentioned explicitly, there are a brightness and vibrancy to most of the paintings that echo Van Gogh’s bright sunlight and glowing wheat, tying both the painting and the poems about the paintings together both visually and rhetorically.

Of the 19 poems in this, the longest section of the collection, 17 are ekphrastic, and each of those 17 tightens and strengthens the connections between art and the everyday world, between experiencing paintings and experiencing life as it is really lived. Yet is it the other two poems that I believe get at the heart of the project Crooker undertakes in Les Fauvres.

These two poems, “Ink” and “Dreaming on Paper,” while not ekphrastic, are inspired by the 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art special exhibition Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings. Ostensibly about the way Van Gogh used pen-and-ink to capture the scenes he would later paint on canvas, “the bones / of the paintings, the things that came before” (“Ink”), these poems – especially through their titles – also speak to the act of the poet herself, for what is writing poetry but dreaming on paper? And what are her tools? The same pen and ink that Van Gogh used to translate what he saw into what he wanted others to see. “In thousands of letters, drawings, diaries, / Van Gogh labored with paper and ink” (“Dreaming”). “He sketched the subject, then he painted it, / then drew it all over again from the painting / so he could send it to his brother in a letter.” Just like a poet, the artist used “Repetition and refrain” (“Ink”) to capture his subject and transform it into art. There is a strong connection here, demonstrated explicitly through the connections Crooker makes in her poems between the art she is celebrating and the life she is living and implicitly through these two poems about creating art using the simple tools of pen and ink.

The remaining 13 poems in section four are some of the strongest in the entire collection. The themes Crooker has introduced in the preceding sections are woven tightly together by the end of the book: the vibrancy of the Fauvist paintings with their energy and bright colors ‘visible’ on the page, the connection between art and sex in “The Jetty at Cassis, Opus 198, 1889” (“And so you painted kisses / all over my breasts, while / I blended colors up and down / your thighs. Together, we connected the dots.”), and the ways in which the emotions a poem’s speaker is experiencing are reflected in the colors of the art work she is contemplating, as in these lines from “L’Atelier Rose, 1911”:

. . .Pink
the edges of my heart, cut them into scallops, make
them whirly. Imagine strawberry ice cream, rhubarb
compote, candy hearts. This sweet, sweet world.

A “sweet, sweet world” indeed, but even in the sweetest of all possible worlds there is the inevitability of death. The collection ends by addressing this inevitability directly, looking first at Alzheimer’s (“House Behind Trees, 1906-07”), then at how the figures in “Women Picking Olives, 1889” “remind me of what I’ve lost, the friends who are not here” while “Above the orchard, the sky is full of ashes-of-roses: / parentheses, ellipses, things we hold onto, / even as they slip away.” It ends, as it should, with a return to Matisse, to “Espagnole: Harmonie en Blue, 1923,” marking the movement through these poems in some ways as more odyssey than journey, as a return as much as a moving forward, as both a culmination and a reiteration (that “Repetition and refrain” once again).

Life in all its messiness, its beauty, and its glory lives in Crooker’s poetry as she paints portraits of what it means to be human. How we all struggle at times. How we can find joy in the smallest of moments. And, ultimately, how we are all learning to live with the knowledge of our own mortality, and the mortality of those we love.

In her earlier poem “Equinox” (Selected Poems) Crooker writes, “I want to praise everything brief and finite.” This she does movingly and beautifully in Les Fauves, but she also praises what lives on in generation after generation: the generosity of spirit that can arise in both art and lived human experience, the way most people are doing their best to connect with those they care about, and how we can find dignity in humanity’s struggle to come to grips with both life and death.




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