Review by Marjorie Maddox
By Barbara Crooker
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2005, 84pp., $17.00
Seventeen-time nominee for a Pushcart Prize, recipient of numerous national awards, and author of ten chapbooks, Barbara Crooker was long overdue for a first-book award. With the publication of Radiance (2005 Word Press Prize), her audience can once again applaud. The collection glows with what we wake to, what we breathe in, what we sleep by. Radiance catches the joy of shadows and the shadows of joy in the rooms where we live every day. I first encountered Crooker’s work as a judge for the 2004 Poetry in Public Places Poster Competition. Her poem “Ordinary Life” broke from the rituals of the mundane into exuberance. Likewise, the poems in Radiance spotlight “blue and black graffiti shining in the rain’s / bright gaze.” They wear an “evening’s melancholy shawls.” They exhale “the glories / of breath.”
The book moves deftly between struggle and song. A “congregation of grackles” is “a long black scarf unwinding / in the cold west wind”; “Even dandelions glitter / in the lawn, a handful of golden change.” Crooker sees life as “a pile of sorrows, yes, but joy / enough to unbalance the equation.” In her aptly titled poem “Sometimes I Am Startled Out of Myself,” the geese “stitch up the sky, and it is whole again.”
In Radiance, we feel the pain-wrought stitches—a son with autism; an ailing parent; a friend dying of cancer; a first child, who “was born, then died, on her due date”; a hectic life that ironically leaves no time to fix a broken clock. Through Crooker’s words, nature and art work together to make us whole, even if the mending is temporary. Through the masterpieces of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Manet, we see “a blizzard of color and light.” The “black flag / of pain” becomes “white / lilacs in a crystal vase.” The healing is artistic, physical, and spiritual.
Although “the sky winds its own long note, a radiant heartache blue,” as Crooker explains, she and her husband sing “loudly as we can, in our tone deaf voices / against the coming rain, the following dark.” As readers, we want to take up the song. Maybe if we do, “the suffering world” will indeed “[recede] in the background.” Radiance is half Blues, half Spiritual—contagious with hope. Just try not to join in.
—from Rattle #24, Winter 2005
Marjorie Maddox, Director of Creative Writing at Lock Haven University, has published 3 full-length books of poetry, 5 poetry chapbooks, 1 children’s book, and over 280 short stories, essays and poems in journals and anthologies. She is co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets of Pennsylvania; her short story collection, What She Was Saying, was 1 of 3 finalists for the 2005 Katherine Anne Porter Book Award.