Poetry

Barbara Crooker: 
“Poem with an Embedded Line by Susan Cohen”

[From the WVFC Poetry Archive. First Published January 31, 2021]

 

Poem with an Embedded Line by Susan Cohen

When the evening newscast leads to despair,
when my Facebook feed raises my blood pressure,
when I can’t listen to NPR anymore,
I turn to the sky, blooming like chicory,
its dearth of clouds, its vast blue endlessness.
The trees are turning copper, gold, bronze,
fired by the October sun, and the bees
are going for broke, drunk on fermenting
apples. I turn to my skillet, cast iron
you can count on, glug some olive oil,
sizzle some onions, adding garlic at the end
to prevent bitterness. My husband,
that sweet man, enters the room, asks
what’s for dinner, says it smells good.
He could live on garlic and onions
slowly turning to gold. The water
is boiling, so I throw in some peppers,
halved, cored, and seeded, let them bob
in the salty water until they’re soft.
To the soffrito, I add ground beef, chili
powder, cumin, dried oregano, tomato sauce,
mashed cannellinis; simmer for a while.
Then I stir in more white beans, stuff the hearts
of the peppers, drape them with cheese and tuck
the pan in the oven’s mouth. Let the terrible
politicians practice / their terrible politics.
At my kitchen table, all will be fed. I turn
the radio to a classical station, maybe Vivaldi.
All we have are these moments: the golden trees,
the industrious bees, the falling light. Darkness
will not overtake us.

From Some Glad Morning: Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press 2020). Published with permission of the press. All rights reserved. Order Some Glad Morning: Poems here.

Listen to Crooker reading her poem here. Read more about her work at the links below:

 

Barbara Crooker’s poems have appeared in magazines such as the Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, The Potomac Review, The Hollins Critic, and The Christian Science Monitor, and anthologies such as The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Good Poems for Hard Times (Garrison Keillor, editor), and Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. Her books are Radiance (2005 Word Press First Book Prize), Line Dance (2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence), More, Gold, Small Rain, Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems, Les Fauves, The Book of Kells (2018 Best Book of Poetry Award, Poetry by the Sea), and Some Glad Morning, released by the Pitt Poetry Series in 2019. Crooker’s awards include three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships, nineteen residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, two residencies at the Moulin à Nef in Auvillar, France, two residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, and an award for outstanding ekphrastic achievement from The Ekphrastic Review. Crooker’s poetry has been read on the BBC, on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company), by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac, by Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on The Slowdown, and in Ted Kooser’s column, American Life in Poetry. Author photo credit: Tonya Wilhelm.

 

Poet’s Note

I wrote this poem during a writing residency at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and I’m sure it happened in the usual way—I let my monkey mind roam, jotting down notes like crazy in longhand and waiting for the poem to (hopefully) appear. The things swirling around then were the grief I was feeling over losing the dear writing friend the poem is dedicated to, grief over what was (is) happening in our country, homesickness for my husband (which showed up in the recipe), what I was currently reading (the Christopher Buckley quote), what was outside my studio window, and what I observed on my daily walks. Somehow, in the lovely magic involved in creating a poem (with the background of hours of reading and studying poetry), all of these things managed to align in this poem.

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

In 31 lines of free verse, including a line by another poet, today’s poem gives us two recipes: one for a mouth-watering version of the stuffed bell peppers my mother used to make and another for combatting end-of-year despair in 2020, one of our most despairing of years.

The poem makes effective use of anaphora, a literary device in which the same word or phrase is repeated at the beginnings of lines. For example, the word “when” is repeated at the beginnings of lines 1–3 in a series of introductory dependent clauses that delay the sentence’s predicate and ratchet up suspense not resolved until “I turn to the sky” in line 4. The phrase “I turn” next sets up a longer-fused tension, repeating twice more, in “I turn to my skillet” in line 9, and “I turn / the radio on” in lines 27–8. Moreover, its syntactic structure (“I” subject + an active verb) is repeated three more times in “I throw,” “I add,” and “I stir.” Besides lending a kind of shadow structure to the poem, the effect of these repeated phrases is to build, hold,  and release tension. Tension is important to all good poetry but maybe matters more in quiet poems like this one, mostly meditative and with understated action and plot.

The poem is set in “October,” in the late afternoon when the speaker is preparing dinner. It opens with a list of activities that recently occupied her and perhaps occasioned this poem: an evening newscast, a Facebook feed, and a report on NPR. In our COVID-locked-down world, these are the windows—and for some, the only windows—to the larger world of society beyond what we can see from our doorsteps.

These activities, the poem tells us, have landed the speaker in despair, raised her blood pressure, and created emotional overload. “When” these things happen—and the poem suggests that they do happen more than on just this one occasion—the speaker’s first resort is to “turn to the sky.” In this wonderful moment, the word “turn” used in the poem signals an actual turn in its narrative. At this point, the speaker tears her gaze away from all those little electronic windows and looks instead—perhaps out of an actual window—at the sky.

The shift is transformative: “I turn to the sky, blooming like chicory.” The second half of this fragment (the sentence goes on for a few more lines) is what English teachers love to criticize as a “dangling modifier,” or more specifically, a “dangling participial phrase.” Such phrases can be unintentionally comic in writing and fatal in poetry, which requires diction to be precise and precisely tied to its referents, but in this case it works in favor of the poem by permitting two meanings of the phrase. That is, we can read “blooming like chicory” as the sky blooming, and we can also read it as the speaker herself “blooming like chicory” in the act of viewing the sky, and this renders the image doubly pleasing.

The simile (“like chicory”) is fresh and surprising, as chicory is a homely roadside flower, sometimes classified as a weed and not often seen in poems. Like today’s author, I am from Pennsylvania and so have a special fondness for this hardy plant that thrives everywhere, even on abandoned strip-mine sites. In summer and fall, chicory raises a somewhat tattered but still moving show of blossoms of the clearest cornflower blue, a visual rhyme with the “vast blue endlessness” of sky praised by the speaker.

The turn from the virtual to the real world is significant, and in fact, the rest of the poem is spent resolutely facing away from the busy electronic world of the human. The act of turning has echoes in other transformational images—fall trees “turning copper, gold, bronze,” and “garlic and onions / slowly turning to gold” in the frying pan. In another act of turning, the speaker turns from the sky “to my skillet,” and for the rest of the poem, her gaze stays there in the kitchen as she prepares the evening meal.

Lines 9–25 enact a mouth-watering recipe, the language rich and resonant enough to wholly capture our attention and so accomplish for us what the speaker has experienced: turning our attention away from the corrosive ways of the world and fixing it firmly in sensation:

To the soffrito, I add ground beef, chili
powder, cumin, dried oregano, tomato sauce,
mashed cannellinis; simmer for a while.
Then I stir in more white beans, stuff the hearts
of the peppers, drape them with cheese and tuck
the pan in the oven’s mouth.

Mouth-watering, right? Heat, light, sustenance, a beloved partner, the ability to see the sky and trees and the world of nature outside—this is a recipe not just for stuffed peppers, but also for surviving confinement.

The world intrudes one last time near the end of the poem with the line borrowed from Susan Cohen. [Ed. note: Susan Cohen is a Contributing Editor to Poetry Sunday, and her tribute column to Marvin Bell appeared last week, on January 17, 2021.] The line is “Let the terrible / politicians practice / their terrible politics.” Now we know the content of those newscasts, Facebook posts, and NPR report that filled the speaker with such despair. The line reminds us that we can never totally escape from current events, but it also gives us the means to at least temporarily banish them. In this context, Cohen’s line rises to the level of a mantra or a talisman, something we can chant (and I do) to make the bogeyman go away.

In this poem, and for this speaker, it works. What matters now, and here, is that “At my kitchen table, all will be fed.” Modeling behavior that’s good for mental health in a global pandemic, the speaker turns on Vivaldi instead of the news and reflects on what may be the poem’s central message:

All we have are these moments: the golden trees,
the industrious bees, the falling light. Darkness
will not overtake us.                        [lines 29–31]

By returning to images of trees and bees seeded earlier, the poem accomplishes thematic ring construction, a formal device that contributes to its effective closing. In the time of COVID, we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing until the vaccines are broadly available: live in the present moment, and tune out the dire predictions and corrosive, disheartening political divisions that rend us citizen from citizen, neighbor from neighbor, brother from brother. It will help, the poem seems to suggest, if we focus on family and the world of nature rather than the world of the human. Some aspects of that world are just too unbearable right now for a sustained gaze. We can’t bury our heads in the sand forever, of course, but a little of that now and then might be crucial to surviving this terrible pandemic.

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