In her new book of poetry, Line Dance, Barbara Crooker transforms everyday experiences — helping her son with homework, listening to her daughter practice the saxophone — into expressions of wonder at the world’s abundance. Through accessible language and intimate details, Crooker explores the relationship of the individual to those around her — children, parents, friends, lovers — to nature, and to God. By the end of this book, I felt as if I knew the author, as if I were reading these poems over her shoulder, so intimate and comfortable is her voice.
The eponymous poem serves as a “proem,” a preface in poetic form, introducing some of the book’s themes. In one long, swerving sentence that cleverly resembles its subject, “Line Dance” describes a line of dancers at a wedding. The speaker is the mother of the bride, who playfully describes the dancers and their connections to one another: “[the bride’s] friends from college arm in arm with my / ex-mother-in-law, who’s whooping it up” with the bridesmaids, “their arms around / each other’s waists, a chorus kick line,” down the line to her ex-husband and his “soon-to-be-estranged second / wife, the one he left us for, at arm’s length.” The physical connections among these people as they dance become a metaphor for the speaker’s emotional connections to them: “[E]veryone I’ve ever loved / is here today, even the dead, raising a glass / and dancing.” The speaker of this poem is an astute observer who describes, simply and charmingly, how the present moment can contain the past and the future; how a dance can hold “everyone I’ve ever loved.”
In subsequent poems, Crooker maintains this high level of observation to illustrate emotional connections. The poems are divided into four sections; in the first section, snow abounds in explorations of grief. In “Valentine,” the speaker hangs hearts in the windows at “winter’s ash end” as she recalls, “Thirty years ago, my first-born came and went / in one brief day.” The longing for relief from winter is intricately wound up with the longing for release from the grief of losing a child, as evinced by the poem’s final lines:
Spring so far in the distance,
it will never arrive. Those babies in the nursery,
pink and blue blossoms. Grief and heart could be
the same word; both have five letters, both rhyme
with blood. Snow is the mute language of loss.
Despite the thirty years’ distance, the speaker’s grief is palpable. The linguistic play involved in relating the words “grief,” “heart,” and “blood” is particularly arresting. The superfluous links (the number of letters in each) and the asserted link (the nonexistent rhyme) between the words allow the reader to share the speaker’s confusion. As she reaches for connections or explanations where none exist, the speaker finds words insufficient to describe the indescribable and is left with “the mute language of loss.” Crooker brings the speaker’s complicated emotions into relief through poetic devices, word games, and metaphor.
“Lemons” revisits the memory of “the maternity ward / when my first-born died.” The speaker becomes “a fruit that had been pulped / for juice, leaving nothing / but a shell, no flesh, no seeds.” Again, Crooker’s metaphor conveys the devastation of a mother who has lost her newborn. The next stanza, however, brings us out of the past and into the present, using a metaphor of the external landscape to convey the internal experience of the speaker:
Thirty years later, my daughter’s
globed stomach, and then, there
was Daniel, shining and puckered
in the moony glow of the delivery
room, rinsed with light from another
world, and a new day dawning.
The birth of her grandson lays a beautiful memory on top of the painful one, not exactly canceling the old memory, but making room for “a new day dawning.” Although the use of dawn to exemplify a new attitude in a speaker is not particularly groundbreaking, in this poem, which comes at the end of a series of poems exploring frozen landscapes and deep grief, the reader welcomes the new day almost as much as the speaker.
By so astutely confronting grief in the first section of her book, Crooker gives depth and context to the later poems that embrace and celebrate the world through simple details and language. Spring and summer are never so welcome — or appreciated — as after a difficult winter. In “Poem on a Line by Anne Sexton, ‘We are All Writing God’s Poem,'” Crooker explores a speaker’s relationship with God, poetry, and nature through domestic details and common aphorisms. Some of the language in this poem can sound tired, but the poem’s formal pattern and lovely imagery maintain a tone of sublimity. Crooker establishes a loose pattern throughout the poem, wherein individual words from one sentence are repeated at the beginning of the next, creating a subtle litany. For example, the word “thousand” is repeated in the first few lines of the poem:
Today, the sky’s the soft blue of a work shirt washed
a thousand times. The journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step.
The repetition of “thousand” occurs again in the last line of the poem, bringing the poem full circle: “The moon spills its milk on the black tabletop / for the thousandth time.” From the start of the poem to the end, the sky has changed from blue to moon-filled, and in doing so, repeats its pattern “for the thousandth time,” connecting this day to every other one, before and after. As an example of “God’s poem,” as the title states, this poem celebrates God through natural splendor — the sky, the moon — as well as through domestic images: a work shirt, spilled milk. In this poem, the relationship between individual and God is casual, almost taken for granted, yet the poet’s acknowledgment of God’s gesture, the poem itself, is her way of praising and giving thanks.
Crooker’s skill lies in this ability to convey awe through intimate details. “Simile,” one of several poems about her autistic son, begins as a poem about his homework assignment, in which he is supposed to fill in blanks with similes. The answer he writes on his worksheet, “angry as a teakettle,” and his explanation for it, “Because it was boiling mad,” are marvelous, but they are not what his teacher wanted, leaving him with “one more red mark / in his life’s long test.” Although his way of seeing the world is not always the “right” way (“Last fall we went to a Broadway / play; what he liked the most / were traffic lights and Don’t Walk signs”), the speaker has learned from her son:
You have made me pay attention
to the world’s smallest minutia. My pea-shaped
heart, red as a stop sign, swells, fills with
the helium of tenderness, thinks it might burst.
Again, as with the poem ending with “a new day dawning,” Crooker skates perilously close to the edge of cliché by describing her heart as filled to bursting. Yet, Crooker seems to use cliché as a poetic device to ground her poems, ensuring connection between the reader and the poem. This poet’s particular gift, close examination of ordinary details using conversational, casual, even occasionally tired language in the service of greater meaning, is attributed in this poem to her son, who has taught her to see the world the way he does, filled with mystery and amazement.
Likewise, in “My Middle Daughter, on the Edge of Adolescence, Learns to Play the Saxophone,” Crooker zeroes in on a moment and a cascade of details to convey the speaker’s mixed emotions toward her daughter’s emerging adolescence. The poem opens with “Her hair, that halo of red gold curls” that has “lost its baby fineness,” then describes the girl’s “gritty fingernails polished / in pink pearl, grass stains / on the knees of her sister’s old / designer jeans.” The mix of details describes a girl who is half-child, half-woman, struggling with both identities, and the mother’s ability to see both sides of her daughter. This mother is also able to keep her sense of humor through her child’s adolescence (and sax lessons): “She’s gone / from sounding like the smoke detector / through Old MacDonald and Jingle Bells.” In the final few lines, the mother looks toward the daughter’s future, linking her improving musical skills to becoming a woman:
Soon she’ll master these keys,
turn notes into liquid gold,
wail that reedy brass.
Soon, she’ll be a woman.
She’s gonna learn to play the blues.
The final line is delightfully unexpected, filled with the speaker’s understanding, pride, and sorrow at seeing her child grow up. The mother’s knowledge of what lies ahead for her child allows her to maintain a sense of humor even as she begins to mourn what is about to pass.
Line Dance is filled with such small moments, each linked to a larger picture, like the dancers at the wedding that introduced these poems. Crooker shows us that every moment, every detail, contains within itself the entire world. In “Listen,” when the poet says, “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,” she is wrong: she can tell us what prayer is. In Line Dance, Crooker has given us a collection of prayers that celebrate life in all its glorious uncertainty.