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.”

Lorna Goodison (b. 1947)

Very likely it’s because I have a bad case of “want-to-escape-this-life-itis” (or maybe it’s just this news cycle), but lately, everywhere I look, I see poems about alternate lives.

One that keeps surfacing is a poem from Hold Fast, “Approaching 52,” in which Holly J. Hughes imagines a self realizing “she’ll never be a lion-tamer, tall hat and curling whip,” and it’s “too late for Jacques Cousteau,” or “a wildlife photographer….” Except in dreams — and in the poem.

Along this line of thought, I recently ordered a couple of books by the Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison, purely based on an On Being broadcast that put me entirely under her spell. Here is a somewhat unassuming poem from her book, Turn Thanks:

Domestic Incense

Just then, in that early afternoon,
I wanted to be that simple woman
who had cooked you Saturday soup

using all golden foods. Bellywoman
pumpkin, yellow yams, sweet potato,
carrots and deep ivory bones of beef.

I would bear it to you in an enamel bowl,
the smell of fragrant thyme and pimento
would waft, domestic incense, as I go.

How the hot Scotch Bonnet pepper
would issue its flavor through
the ripened walls of its own skin

but because like our love its seeds
can scorch, I’d be careful to remove it
before it cooked itself into breaking.

—Lorna Goodison, from Turn Thanks (University of Illinois Press, 1999)

And, really, how lovely in a world of war and contagion, that there is still soup — and poets to recall us, if not to our ideal selves, then somewhere else.

So, if I have an assignment for you this week, it’s just this. Maybe you’re entirely satisfied with your life, but if you — for a few hours — could be someone else (Lion Tamer or Soup Maker), what would that someone be?

Lorna Goodison

Where to find me

The Madrona Project, v. II / no. 1

“Keep a green bough in your heart, the singing bird will come” is a Chinese proverb that serves as epigraph to this new collection from Empty Bowl Press, selected and edited by Holly J. Hughes. In a time of drastic examples of climate change, in the face of predictions of “pornographic” damage to come (Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet), it gives me heart.

The collection features artwork from Jocelyn Curry, Susan Leopold Freeman, Anita Leigh Holliday, Sandra Jane Polzin and others, and poems and prose by a wealth of northwest writers including Judith Roche (1941-2019), and our new Washington State poet laureate Rena Priest. Woven throughout one sees the panicky facts of destruction: “A raft of debris as large as Africa” (Kathleen Flenniken, “Horse Latitudes”); “smoke / hangs like a veil, a scarf we can’t breathe through” (Sharon Hashimoto, “Back Fires: September 2020”). It’s time, these poems and prose pieces exhort us again and again: “We’ve stayed calm for too long,” and “It’s time to move quickly” (Iris Graville, “Not Just a Drill”; “Truth time” (Risa Denenberg, “Posthuman”).

And all that’s so worth saving calls to us from every page: “Surrounded by birdsong in many languages / walled in by forty-, fifty-, sixty-foot cedar, fir, hemlock / maples leafed out, honeysuckle beginning” (Ronda Piszk Broatch, “Apologizing for Paradise”); native blackberries “carry the taste of my childhood forest on a summer day” (Irene Keliher); “we pick up and play and write and sing and dance so that the Honduran emerald hummingbird the leatherback sea turtle the mountain gorilla the tiger salamander…” (Penina Taesali, “The Word of the Day”).


“Perhaps every poem I write is the same poem; a poem to you, child of the next world, I hope you have some hope,: Sarah Marie Ortiz calls out to the future in “River.” In her introduction Hughes says much the same:

“I hope our songs will spark your imagination, rekindle, and breathe life into these embers of hope. Together, may we envision a future that hears and honors all our voices.”