Monthly Archives: October 2013

Review of Gold by Barbara Crooker


Barbara Crooker. Gold. Cascade Books / Wipf and Stock, 2013. 70 pgs. $11.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Gold,  Barbara Crooker’s fourth collection, is published as part of Cascade Books’ Poiema Poetry Series which features the work of Christian poets, presumably those whose work reveals their faith commitments. Other authors in the series include such accomplished poets as Sydney Lea and Paul Mariani. Artists of faith (and I include all faith traditions here, although in this review I will adhere to the language of Christianity), when they understand their drive to create as a call, know that part of the responsibility of their gift is to attend to craft, to write as well as they are able. Sometimes such artists assume the role of prophet; sometimes they bear witness. Sometimes their content overtly reveals their religious orientation; sometimes their spirituality enters their work more subtly, in their approach to their material. Either way, these artists recognize that their urge to create forms a significant part of their claim to be made in the image of God. For this reason, I am glad that Cascade Books has created this series, providing space for poets who are serious about their faith and also serious about their art.

Crooker’s poems in this collection are not narrowly religious, but they are faith-filled. They accept life as it is—defined by mortality, for example—even as the speaker sometimes wishes it could be otherwise. Many of these poems have been written out of grief as Crooker mourns her mother’s death, yet they remain firmly invested in this material world. Several of the poems describe her mother’s final illness, particularly as she ate or failed to eat. Among my favorites is “Ambrosia,” the speaker’s mother’s word for everything good. Maybe it was “chicken / in basil cream with Sauvignon Blanc on fresh linguine. / Or a dense chocolate cake, sour cream and hot coffee / in the batter.” But it might have been just a piece of fruit. Or maybe it was a donut, “filled / with the jeweled ooze of jelly.” Her mother ate, attending fully to this bit of the world, “And when she was done, she sighed. Ambrosia.” Ambrosia is, of course, the food of the gods, and according to some stories, it confers immortality. As she hovers in mortality, the speaker’s mother translates her life into the immortal world, not through theological debate or repentance or even prayer, but through her appreciation of the concrete elements of this particular world.

Most of the poems in Gold are brief personal lyrics, with a consistent speaker from poem to poem. They rely on images taken from nature—goldenrod, maple, geese, mockingbird. The speaker listens and sees as she moves through her days. And she thinks—her observations lead to insight, most often to that familiar frustrating paradox: life is full to overflowing and yet we still resist letting go when we must. One poem that illustrates this preoccupation is “Late Prayer,” which opens with an unusual impatience: “It’s not that I’m not trying / to love the world and everything / in it, but look, that includes people / who shoot up schools, not just the blue / bird in his coat of sky,…” Crooker’s line breaks here are particularly effective. The break at line three, for example, after the word “people” suggests initially that attempting to love people in general can be trying, rather than only the  people “who shoot up schools.” The poem lists several examples of horrifying or at least annoying types of people, contrasting them with sky and clouds and wind, the aspects of creation that are easier to appreciate. Then, a few lines from the end, the poem shifts its tone. Even as she has become impatient, the speaker remains filled with “wild longing.” She hopes reality consists of more than “shining surfaces.” And she understands that she might fail, too, not because she’s likely to kill someone or harden her heart against her fellow creatures, but simply through a failure of courage: “Will I be strong / enough to row across the ocean of loss / when my turn comes to take the oars?”

In the final section of the book, the poems become more varied in their subject matter, often responding to paintings and other pieces of art. The speaker seems to have emerged from her period of mourning and re-entered the world. My favorite image in the entire book occurs here, at the end of a poem called “Salt”: “Long ago, / someone tipped some salt on a black skillet / and decided to call that spillage ‘stars.’” I was not expecting that metaphor, yet it encapsulates the poem, which situates domestic experience in terms of a transcendent reality.

If I have a quibble with these poems, it is with the preponderance of forms of the verb “to be.” I would prefer more telling, more engaged verbs. A strength of these poems is in their imagery, which we often assume is composed of nouns and adjectives, for we see and hear and touch things. But as we watch those things, they change, even when they seem still. Poems often hinge on the nature of that change, conveyed with verbs. Nevertheless, these poems have called me to observe my own world more mindfully, to name it, to call out to it, and to hear when it calls out to me.

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Review of Phyla of Joy by Karen An-hwei Lee

Lee cover

Karen An-hwei Lee. Phyla of Joy. Tupelo Press, 2012. 63 pgs. $16.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Phyla of Joy, Karen An-hwei Lee’s third collection, is filled with things—bamboo flowers, oolong tea, honeybees, salt. The poems are exceedingly visual, and much of the music in the poems corresponds to the tightly concrete—yet also seductively puzzling—images. Many of the poems are contemplative in tone, but they develop their meaning (if meaning is what they’re aiming for) through juxtaposition of imagery rather than explanation. I found myself rereading several of the poems, sometimes because I found the language so attractive, sometimes because I didn’t quite understand; most often, I experienced both responses simultaneously. I realized, eventually, that these are poems to sit with, to absorb, to pick up and put down and pick up again. Sometimes the lines don’t make literal sense, but they are nevertheless interesting—“Monday is where camphor comes from,”—until, usually, as we read from one line to the next, the poem’s logic rises up in us as dawn rises up, tentatively, from earth.

Many of the poems engage our curiosity immediately. “Prayer of Resistance” begins with this question: “How do we fly to heaven / with the resistance of weather?” “Dream of Metasequoia” claims that “Two o’clock is the weight of empathy.” “Sunday Is” completes its title with “A kind of raiment.” I find myself measuring the “weight of empathy”—it is softer than the glare of high noon, more hopeful than that oppressive dark night, but it is not nothing either. Cupping empathy, our hands sink slightly. And I find myself considering Sunday’s “raiment,” a garment to wrap ourselves in to signal intention, attention to our internal lives. I anticipate an answer to the opening question in “Prayer of Resistance,” but read this couplet instead: “Wedding gases, says a child. / No, they’re noble gases.” These lines, too, I find curious, though I’m uncertain how they relate to either heaven or “the resistance of weather.” Like many of the poems in the collection, “Prayer of Resistance” establishes its sense via detour and deflection; it meanders toward meaning, teasing the reader perhaps, as the poem resists easy penetration and the reader resists meaninglessness. The speaker suggests that “the resistance we meet in life / winks at the universe,” and I find myself winked at too in my determination to understand, to resist the poem’s ultimate conclusion, “before black holes swallow all / we remember since birth.”

Some of the poems are more immediately accessible. “Invocation,” for example, opens with a straightforward statement, “My body isn’t shaped like a violin, said the girl.” Although we don’t yet know who this girl is—or if it matters who she is—the relationships among the lines are more direct than they are in many of the poems. The poem continues, “Curve in my hip isn’t deep enough, profundo. // One blue world, my curve vanishes. / You aren’t a violin, said the mother.” The girl offers several negative evaluations of her body, each time the mother suggesting that the girl can’t be reduced to figurative language, as desirable as that language might be. The language in this poem is beautiful, but the girl is after more than beautiful language, as is the mother. The poem ends ironically, “without the pressure of metaphors / / invoking paternal shadows, absent figures of speech, veritas.” At some level, of course, all language is metaphorical. And declaring something absent brings it into presence. The truth of the poem lies both in its metaphors and in their denial.

Perhaps the most playful poem in the collection is “Theories of the Soul,” which references ideas of Kant, Aquinas, Heraclitus, and others. It helps to know that Thomas Aquinas was taunted by his companions as a “dumb ox,” for in the poem, Aquinas “feels his soul / sailing out of his head // floating near the roof / where a blue ox wings by.” Perhaps in attempting to describe the soul, each thinker is correct. By its end, however, the poem becomes a love poem, to Aquinas and other theologians, yes, but also to another unidentified “you,” the “true friend” referred to in the poem’s epigraph. “If you / are a soul in two bodies,” the speaker speculates and then continues, “life is more complex / and we must labor // twice in the field of sorrow / after sleep, bath, and a glass // as Aquinas whispers, the things / we love tell us who we are.” The speaker has named this you whom she loves, and has, now, revealed who she is.

Phyla of Joy is unusually unified—through form, style, repeated reference. The writing is spare and satisfying and suggestive. Although I occasionally wished for more guidance from the speaker, I much more often appreciated the quiet patience the poems encourage.


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Review of Theophobia by Bruce Beasley

Beasley cover

Bruce Beasley. Theophobia. BOA Editions, 2012. 103 pgs. $16.00.

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Theophobia, Bruce Beasley’s seventh collection, is both the sort of book I immediately gravitate to and the sort of book I ordinarily avoid. Several of the poems puzzle over theological questions, often beginning with orthodoxy and then springing outward, exploring the ramifications of creedal statements for those of us defined by modernity and postmodernity. These questions intrigue me also, and I admire poetry that grapples with those big abstract questions while maintaining its firmly concrete identity as poetry. Beasley’s work does that, yet at first glance the poems in this collection also make me a little wary. Some of the vocabulary is highly technical—“hexadecimal code,” “somnotropic, thanatropic, oneirotrope,” “phenylalanine”—and some of the line and stanza breaks draw attention to syllables (rather than words) and to orthography—“twi- / dim this / demi- // night this…” As my eyes light on these pages, before I read the poems, I worry that I just won’t understand what Beasley is up to. And then if I do understand, will my work of comprehension earn a just wage? Beasley’s poems do demand an attentive reader; but they demand the sort of attention that is most pleasurable, a reader who is immersed in the questions, who is fully engaged with the language, who surrenders to the poems’ guidance.

Most of the poems in this collection are several pages long, often arranged into sections. They juxtapose language from one specialized discipline with that of another, exploiting the ideas of genetics, for example, to explore theological teachings that have been debated (and even generally agreed upon by most Christians) for millennia. The poems succeed because this juxtaposition does indeed startle us toward fresh insights. Readers are presented with a mind thinking, a particularly energetic mind, one that enjoys the task. And despite my own initial hesitations, I found the poems ultimately hospitable.

Because I would like to explore some of Beasley’s strategies closely, I’ll discuss only one poem in this review, “Having Read the Holy Spirit’s Wikipedia.” My choice is inadequate, I know, for several other poems in the collection are compelling, complex, and rewarding, and I don’t want to suggest that this poem somehow summarizes the collection (although in a sense it does). It is the poem that has come to obsess me; it is the one I can’t leave alone.

Obviously, a poem reliant on an online encyclopedia regularly updated with contributions from expert and amateur alike could not have been written much before the present moment. The title suggests, though, that it’s not simply a Wikipedia entry on the Holy Spirit that the speaker has read, but the Holy Spirit’s own frequently updated virtual collection of revelations that the speaker has observed. In both Greek and Hebrew, words translated as “spirit” can also mean “breath” or “wind,” a fact the poem incorporates. The poem is arranged into nine sections, each one logically distinct from the others. The poem opens with the description “Glossolalic and disincarnate.” Glossolalia is the practice of speaking in tongues, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and one, perhaps, particularly suited to poets. And the Holy Spirit is the aspect of the Trinity least likely to be portrayed in human form. This opening section becomes a prayer: “interfere / in me, interleave me / and leave me through my breathing: like some third // person conjugation I’ve rewhispered / in a language I keep trying to learn, a tongue / made only of verbs, and all its verbs irregular.” The spirit of God is on the one hand the breath of God; the Holy Spirit also descends, according to the Pentecost story, upon the apostles as tongues of flame. And Yahweh, who will be introduced in section six, may very well be as much verb, “I am,” as noun. Yet if all verbs in a language are irregular, if a language has no discernible pattern, can that language be learned?

In the second section, the speaker attempts to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity: “I can’t keep / straight sometimes which one of You / is You: // there’s One who fractures off from light / as light, I know, and One / (is that One You?) eternally begotten, so never not at just that instant being born.” Anything eternal always was, of course, and always will be, yet here we have an additional fact—the Holy Spirit isn’t simply eternal but “eternally begotten” (a description usually applied to the second person of the Trinity), and so always also emerging, “being born.” The Holy Spirit, therefore, is always and is always new.

Section three seems to veer away from theology. It describes a truly bizarre creature, a parasite, “Toxoplasma gondii,” which attacks the brain of a rat, persuading the rat to lust after cats because the parasite reproduces itself in the intestines of cats. Is this how the Holy Spirit acts on us, the section asks, reconfiguring our response “from dread to lust for what consumes it”?

By the end of the poem, the speaker has explored the rationale for representing the Holy Spirit as a dove, and he has revealed his own son’s response to the infancy narratives of Jesus: “so Jesus’ dad was just like you…” The speaker returns to Wikipedia and to prayer, concluding with this petition: “Who // bloweth where You listeth, Whom / the world will never know, list to blow / down me.” We hear John Donne here, and we hear allusions to hymns earlier on (at least I do)Yet the poem is entirely Beasley’s own. To thoroughly explicate it would require more space than a brief review permits, and extended explication isn’t really the purpose of a review. For that we have other forms and, perhaps, the opportunity for additional conversation. This poem integrates science, technology, etymology, and autobiography into theology, suggesting that nothing exists apart from this one who is “Being-Without-a-Body,” yet the poem handles each idea with a light hand. It’s mystical rather than missionary; it aims not to convert but to astonish. Reading this poem, I keep imagining myself in the presence of someone who puts down the paper after every few sentences to exclaim, “Oh my God, you’ve got to read this.”

I’m envious of Beasley’s agility in this book. The poems consolidate the mind with the spirit, the ordinary with the extreme, possibility with impossibility.