Barbara Crooker, The Book of Kells

THE BOOK OF KELLS, Barbara Crooker. The Poiema Poetry Series, Cascade Books, An Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401, 2019, 88 pages, $12.00 paper,

I’ve been saving this book for Easter Sunday. Barbara Crooker wrote these poems, her eighth full-length collection, in Ireland, while on a writing fellowship at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Co. Monaghan, Ireland. Her meditations on the Book of Kells, and other aspects of her sojourn, made me want to meditate on her poems. Like this one (note: the r and v refer to recto and verso, right and left, pages of the manuscript):


Let’s praise the agile little animals
that flit here and there in the Vulgate text,
who can wedge in small spaces: the moth
in initial P, antenna flickering outside the line.
Or the monk on his horse, trotting right off the page.
Look, there’s an otter, his mouth full of fish, and here,
a blue cat sits watchfully by. A gorgeous green lizard
slithers in the text, 72r, while a wolf pads his way
through 76v. It’s a whole barnyard: chickens and mice,
hounds and hares, snakes, eagles, and stags. Animals
as decoration. Animals as punctuation. Things seen
and unseen. So let us praise all of God’s creatures,
including the small and the inconsequential, all of us,
interlinear, part of the larger design.

—Barbara Crooker

This is a physically beautiful book, bought (again) on impulse, just because it was so lovely. But inside the covers, too, such beauty! “Somehow Barbara Crooker has fastened it all to the page here: the sweet green world of Ireland, with its glorious book of Kells, its age-old humor, its inimitable music, its poets with their delicious bendy language, so that you can almost taste those buttery scones and its peat-laced Irish whiskey” (Paul Mariani, back cover).

I wish I could buy copies for all of my friends. I wish I could write such a book. Part, as I said, meditation, part travelogue.  “For the monks, the very shape of the letters / were magical, this graceful insular majuscule” (“The Alphabet”). Then the poems drawing from Yeats and Heaney and other Irish poets. And the poems—more familiar to fans of Crooker—of domestic bliss: “drinking tea in a blue-patterned mug / while rain mutters and spatters / the flagstones” (“Almost”).

You will have to get your own copy, but here’s one more poem. It’s set in October (the month I visited Ireland in 2017), but makes a perfect poem for Easter.

Small Prayer

Ireland, late October, and first frost settles on the lawn.
Yesterday, the gardener on his tractor mowed
in concentric circles, a Celtic knot at the center
of his design. Now in the grooves, ice crystals
set off the pattern, illuminate it as surely
as monks in their cells. Up from the lake,
a fairy mist rises, and whooper swans bugle up
the dawn, which flushes the clouds pink and gold.
On this new day, may I walk out singing, open
to what’s never happened before. Let me be grateful.
Let me pay attention. And then when evening
closes the shutters, may I sail through the night
on the back of a swan.

—Barbara Crooker

This past Friday evening I attended a Zoom event with Enlighten Kitsap featuring Holly J. Hughes. It was a great introduction to inspirational poetry—and how we need poetry in hard times. She read a number of poems, including one by Barbara Crooker (and one by me!). I highly recommend it. The video should be posted in few days:

And for today, may you “walk out singing, open / to what’s never happened before.”

What Poetry Books Are Made of

I have finally decided on what my new poetry manuscript is—or, I’ve almost decided.

Poems about my childhood on a farm, about the farm and about the trees on the farm, about the people and animals there, and (especially) about my parents up to and including their deaths. It’s been an exhausting though rewarding journey, choosing which 60 poems would stand in for all the other poems I’ve written on these subjects.

My tentative title is The Dryad, which appears to be incomprehensible (to date) to about 1/20th of people I’ve shared it with. (My friend Karen says, “Keep it. They can look it up.”)

Subjects not in the book: waitressing, most of the 1,000,000 poems about my daughters (if the poem was set on a visit to the farm, it was fair game), poems explicitly about my marriage, poems about teaching, poems about recent politics, COVID-19, and so forth. Just farm poems and mom/dad poems (since our parents sort of are our geography, it all makes sense. I hope).

One part of my process has been reading many many poetry books by other people, with a steely eye looking out for book structure. Even though my ms. Is almost there, I’m still reading other poets’ books, and this week I am reading two books by Barbara Crooker.

A poet who writes about cows (and she does) never has any trouble winning my heart. Here is one (not about cows, but still captivating):

Gray Foxes

It was the summer the gray foxes came out
of the deep woods to stand on our suburban lawn,
screaming at the dying cat, claiming the night for their own.
Two nights later, he faded away, became dust and stone.

After surgery, my mother hallucinated that she was alone
in the hospital, the last person on earth. She
picked up the phone, but there was no one to call.
Night after night, she had the same dream,
the only one alive in a deserted city.

And then the black day came when the old dog left us;
his breath, ragged, foam bubbling from his muzzle.
He laid his head down in the dew-drenched grass,
a sweet September morning, and never got up again.

Maybe the foxes were real; maybe they were only a dream.
The days rush by, swallows in the wind with their green backs
and white throats; they disappear in the shadows
when twilight overtakes them.

—Barbara Crooker (from More, C&R Press, 2010)


Of course this poem makes me teary, and it throws me straight back into my childhood—is there anything on a farm that is not destined for death? We didn’t have foxes, but we had coyotes and log trucks that took the corner near our house too fast, cats…oh, I’ll just stop there. But how did my own mother’s decline and death not conjure that up more for me?

Another aspect I admire in this poem is how each stanza skips to a new topic, circling back at the end—but not quite—to the foxes. There’s a dream-like quality here which is partly because of the mother’s hallucination or dream in stanza two, but is more a product of Crooker’s willingness to not be strictly logical and linear.

This link will take you to her poem of the week, “Covid” (which you must read), but from there you can navigate to her homepage: