Barbara Crooker’s newest work, The Book of Kells, braves overtly Christian topics and fresh poetic forms with the confidence that comes from a sure and supple imagination. Meditating on the medieval manuscript, a treasure of Christian iconography, Crooker excavates ancient truths that provoke our modern sensibility. She considers, for example, the thinness between the divine and the earthly in those bleak Celtic outposts where monks laboured with fierce devotion: “What would it have been like to live then, in the time / of Collum Cille, when angels might have been hovering / in the breathable air?”
She discovers a kinship with these scribes who are “Stunned by the mystery of the alphabet, / The fastness of the Word.” Their sacred script, embellished with the whimsy of ordinary life – cats, peacocks, snakes – affirms her poetic vocation to “pay attention.” She embraces their homely monkish piety: “For the whole world was holy, / not just parts of it. The world was the Book of God. / The alphabet shimmered and buzzed with beauty.”
Crooker’s graphic images re-create that holy world, one that includes the poet herself. Firs “murmur their resinous dreams.” Swans appear with “citron beaks, charcoal feet, meringue wings, a snowdrift in flight.” Marvelling at the panoply of “animals, humans, plants twisted and interlaced” to shape the 2000 unique capital letters in the text, she concludes: “Bend me, Lord, like a human pretzel, / Fit me into the form you desire. Let me shine / Like crushed foil, let me become a perfect design.”
The poems in this volume sparkle with bright thoughtfulness. When Barbara Crooker pays attention, my own focus is sharpened. When she ponders “the gospel page shining, white as cotton, / fresh from the laundry, a pledge that darkness / could turn into light,” my soul applauds.
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