Review of Barbara Crooker’s Gold
In her most recent book, Gold, Barbara Crooker argues with Robert Frost. True, “nature’s first green is gold,” and, true, “nothing gold can stay,” but Crooker sees that nature’s last green is also gold. In these intense, well-crafted poems, gold is tenor and vehicle as Crooker examines the death of her mother, Isabelle, the death of friends, and her own softening body.
Here in the woods,
it’s autumn’s great investment portfolio; look,
everything’s turned the color of money:
copper, brass, gold.
It’s what the world gives us: ash and gold.
Crooker’s opening lyrics recreate the golden autumn in which her mother is dying of breast cancer; she recounts frenzied trips with her mother from doctor to doctor and momentary respites in sunlight “like honey.” In fact, Crooker’s gold often appears in the form of honey and syrup, Karo and sugar, gold we can eat, the sweetness of which her mother was so fond—Dunkin Donuts and marshmallow Peeps. While her mother is still alive, Crooker can offer sweetness. And though Crooker knows “No honey is sweet enough/for this dark cup of tea,” she provides what she can:
I bake her favorite shortbread,
make peanut butter fudge,
bring her dinner in a wicker basket . . .
In the hands of a lesser poet, all this sweetness—“marble-swirled, sugar-powdered, honey-glazed, thickly iced with neon sprinkles”—could become cloying, but Crooker uses image and metaphor to remind us that gold is never a simple good: the golden dandelion going to seed is like “cancer’s random toss.” The bitter and the sweet are one—gold and grit.
Crooker also recounts the emotional topsy-turvy that caring for a dying mother entails. In “Snippet,” Crooker moves from irritation (“the mockingbird’s going jabber, jabber, jabber, . . .”) to parody and pun and then to momentary gold:
. . . From far off, a woodpecker
is knocking, knocking. Batter my heart, three-
personed God, dip it in flour, salt, and milk
fry it up, gold and golden as this afternoon,
one shining lake of light.
“Late August” offers a feast of sensual images—sliced tomatoes shuffled with mozzarella, finished off with “basil’s anise nip”—and then the auditory reminder: “Listen to the crows/ outside the cold window: gone gone gone.” Crooker follows this feast of despair with a prayer of thanks, “In Praise of Dying,” which recounts what she did with her mother during her mother’s last six weeks. For this time together, Crooker is quietly joyful—
For letting her
go out as quietly as a candle
that has used up all its wax.
For letting me be there
for her last breath
that fluttered out like a moth.
and we too praise this peaceful death as Crooker catches her mother’s quiet end in the th’s of “breath” and “moth,” in the image of an extinguished light.
As Crooker’s Gold chronicles the year from the autumn of her mother’s death to the following summer, she continues her lyrical and narrative meditations on the themes suggested by her mother’s death: the ashes and the gold, mortality and eternity, this dying world and its golden art. As her mother died, so will Crooker, but she accepts the inevitable. As she says in “Soft,” “I don’t want a younger man with a buff body.” Art, it seems, to Crooker can “edit him [her husband] back to the boy/ he was, the one I never knew.”
The poem “Sparklers” also suggests that art, in the end, is both golden and fleeting. Weaving together childhood, DNA and the death of her mother, Isabelle, Crooker portrays writing as spit and fizz, as glittering in the dark. It’s the Fourth of July, and the family celebrates with sparklers:
Here, we keep tracing in tiny
pyrotechnics the letters we were given at birth,
branding them on the air. And though my mother’s
name has been erased now, I write it, too:
a big swooping, a little hissing s, and a that sighs
like her last breath, and then I ring
belle, belle, belle in the sulphuric smoky dark.
In this poem, an ars poetica, Crooker again reminds us nothing gold can stay, but while we are here we can write our “belle, belle, belle in the sulphuric smoky dark.”