Poetry Porch: Poetics

Some Glad Morning: Poems by Barbara Crooker. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019. $17.00. ISBN 9780822965923 (paper).

Reviewed by Pat Valdata

In Some Glad Morning, her ninth book, Barbara Crooker explores the themes that her work returns to again and again: the natural world, art, family life, aging. Peonies and paintings appear side by side with politics, ecological disaster, cruelty, and illness. Loosely organized in chronological order, its sections pull us through the seasons from spring through winter. These poems serve as reminders of how precarious normal life is, and how much we have to lose if it all goes sideways. But it also celebrates the small, precious joys of life: shopping at an open-air market, stepping into a bakery for pastry, going to an art museum, activities all the more cherished after this year of the pandemic, quarantines, and social distancing.

Crooker is a master at ekphrastic poetry, and this book includes several fine examples. “Still Life with Aubergines” (81), based on a Matisse painting, begins with a writing prompt: “Challenged by a writer in Ireland to use / the word aubergine in a poem, I demurred: / Too fancy, too French. Americans are more earthy.” Describing the painting, she calls the aubergines “little odalisques of the table” who “lounge precariously in their satin slips.” She has fun describing the eggplant as a sexy object, suggesting that it “slip into something / more comfortable,” which turns out to be a pan of oil. Then she brings us back to cooking, with instructions to salt the eggplant to remove its bitter juices, so its underlying sweetness can remind us “how summer is fleeting . . . our days in the sun are brief.”

“Peonies” (6), from a painting by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, is especially poignant. Cut flowers are a standard carpe diem symbol, but Crooker’s peonies aren’t sweet young things. They’re stand-ins for middle age: “So what if my leaves are starting / to droop,” the flower asks. Asserting that life in a vase is better than being battered by weather, the peony sees itself as “trailing ribbons / and silk scarves. I’m an implosion / of ruffles, a can-can dancer.” The flower understands that life is fleeting, “but today, it’s May / and the cafés are open.” This is the moment when age is no impediment to sensuality and joy.

When she published this collection in 2019, Crooker could not have predicted what lay ahead in 2020. She is a poet who can praise almost anything, even “chiggers, / ticks and stinkbugs” (8). Yet, by the second half of the book, the short, chilly days of fall are a stark reminder that “[w]e know that unbearable losses / are waiting up ahead, and that practicing anticipatory grief stays nothing” (“Mid-November” 51). In a poem about that most humble of crackers, “Saltines” (55), she writes “How little we knew / about what was ahead.” In “The New Year” (63), she reminds us that “When a door bangs shut, a window doesn’t open. / Sometimes, it slams on your fingers. God often / gives us more than we can handle.” With this sequence, Crooker warns of inevitable losses and the fragility of life.

Crooker adds a fifth section, one that celebrates life’s transience even as it reminds us that the world will go on without us. In “Moon” (88), she begins, “The ample moon of my husband is rising softly / as he breathes through his CPAP hose.” The humor of the lines is balanced by the affection that permeates this nocturne. Although the couple is aging, with soft, achy bodies and white hair, the reader has no doubt this is a love poem. The closing stanza is unambiguous:

    So let me nestle against you, O my beloved,
    your full moon riding high. Together, we can
    make our own mournful music. The night is cold,
    but our bed isn’t empty. Let us ride in this small
    boat on the incoming tide.

The final poem in this collection brings together all the thematic elements of the book in the appropriately titled “Tutti-Frutti” (91). The literal translation of the title — “All fruits, what my mouth never knew / it desired” — captures the raw sexuality of Little Richard’s song and the blossoming sexuality of the teenagers dancing to it. The grown woman in France tasting the bread filled with “apricots, golden raisins, figs, craisins” and seeing how it makes a “perfect partnership” with “a slab of foie gras,” announces, with her mouth “full of pleasure / and decadence, finally, I am in love.” But readers will understand that Crooker has been in love — with life, with art, with nature, with her family, and with words — for her whole life, and our lives are the richer for it.

Copyright © 2021 by Pat Valdata.