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The Book of Kells, Barbara Crooker

Julie L. Moore


The Book of Kells, winner of Poetry by the Sea’s 2018 Best Book Award, by acclaimed poet Barbara Crooker is her most luminous, multi-layered collection yet. Granted two writing fellowships at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmarkerrig, Ireland, Crooker spent time there researching, observing, and writing about the ancient, illuminated manuscript. Thus, her collection beautifully celebrates and insightfully analyzes the four Latin Gospels in all their glory and aesthetic particularity—the ornate motifs, the stunning pigments, the insular majuscules. It likewise keenly observes how art and faith intersect in the Vulgate text, how it juxtaposes with our contemporary age, and how it preserves a time when “the whole world was holy, / not just parts of it,” a time when “[t]he world was the Book of God. / The alphabet shimmered and buzzed with beauty” (“The Book of Kells: Chi Rho”).

The book opens with two immersive poems set apart from the rest: “Samhain” and “Newgrange.” These poems effectively set the mood for the collection, epitomizing Ireland in all its superstition, mysticism, and history. In “Samhain,” the Gaelic word for the festival held on October 31 recognizing when the lighter season separates from the darker one—a thin time, as the Celts would say, where spirits can pass from one world to the next and back again—an old woman tells us we should “[l]ook in the mirror swirled with smoke, turn over a card, sprinkle salt in the doorway.” In contrast, “Newgrange,” the poem named after the one-acre mound (a UNESCO World Heritage site) in County Meath, tells us, “It’s deep time here, this barrow grave five thousand years old . . . . I’ve never been in a space so dark.” Thus, the two poems set up the juxtaposition of images and themes to come—thin places and deep places as well as “[l]ight, dark, freeze, thaw, seedtime, harvest, wheel of the year, the spiral dance.”

Section one then focuses on the Book of Kells itself, which is displayed at Trinity College, albeit only a couple pages a day. Crooker lets us know in “Trinity College, the Book of Kells” that “the Gospel of John rises, pure gold / in the gloom: In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh.” Surely, a more fitting passage from the manuscript could not have been opened that day, integrating perfectly with Crooker’s purposes here to explore both humanity and theology. After humorously noting that John is her “tribe, a scribe,” the poet intuits how the text “is the universe recast as pattern” as she “draw[s] in / a breath, Word of God on [her] tongue.” Similarly, in the poem “Book of Kells,” we read the paradox from Henri Nouwen: “The word is born in silence, / and silence is the deepest response to the word,” leading us to draw in our own deep, contemplative breath.

Crooker’s poems likewise present a feast of vivid images: Angels and roosters, snakes and peacocks, monks’ marginalia and corrections, inks like kermes red and yolk-gold, capital letters and the punctuation itself all are spread before us. In “Peacocks,” a poem first published in the 2016 issue of Relief, for instance, we learn that those proud birds are “everywhere” in the Book of Kells,

eating grapes with lions, perched on the heads
of snakes, contorted in roundels, crammed
inside letters: languidly draped on an H
or painfully squashed in a U. The pale host
appears on their tails instead of extravagant
blue/gold/red eyes. The monks thought their flesh
incorruptible, symbol of the resurrected Christ.

These lines illustrate well Crooker’s many strengths, master of lineation and enjambment as she is, queen lyricist, and aficionado of Christian symbols and sensory details. The little surprises along the way—whose heads are the lions perched on? ah, snakes! crammed inside of what? ah, letters!—delight the readers as well as pull them deeper in, to discover Christ is in all, as the Scriptures teach. Indeed, “The Alphabet” epitomizes these strengths and this lesson beautifully:

Inside an H, there’s a man whose lips help form
Jesus spoke. Two poor peacocks are pressed face-to-face
for eternity, twined inside the letter U, while two hungry lions
become R and D, yoga for felines, ever-flexible. Imagine a P
made of cat, bird, and snake. Or a snake slithered into a knot,
hissing his name. . . . Inscribed
with the simplest of materials, ink into hide, each initial
coils and curls, retraces the world in vegetal wonder.

Poems like this one tightly weave together lively descriptions with weighty theology—Christ as Creator and Redeemer, serpent as tempter, the two names, like their destinies, coiling around each other. Not to mention Crooker’s witty sense of humor that also infuses the book, another trait that seems quintessentially Irish. Thus, we readers observe the pages with her, as if we’re there in the darkly lit room, staring at the manuscript housed in glass.

The second section of Crooker’s book zooms out from the Latin manuscript to capture the Irish nation. The poem “Ireland” (also previously published in Relief) makes this transition well, as it quietly compares two swans to “ruffled lilies . . . in the lake’s bright bowl,” notes “the green fields are clotted with sheep,” and asks, “What / is this world, but the body of God?” Thus, it seems that Ireland itself possesses the ability to incarnate the beauty of the Word. It is no surprise, then, that one of several impressive glosas in her book draws upon Yeats’s “The Wild Swans of Coole,” as rhododendrons, lilies, and gardenias adorn “that lake’s edge or pool” and the poet expresses her amazement: “It’s a mystery, isn’t it, these birds that mate for life?” (“Swans”). Incorporating quatrains from poems by Yeats (and elsewhere, Heaney and O’Driscoll) in several glosas like this one allows the Irish voice to speak for itself, a voice that harmonizes well with Crooker’s.

In part three of her book, Crooker explores the Ireland whose “veil’s pulled thin,” beautifully echoing “Samhain,” as she herself utters prayers and thinks of loved ones she’s lost. The poet mourns a friend’s death, wishing she “knew / the right words, the patterns, how to read / the leaves, how to climb the ladder of stars” to reach her (“Almost”). Alas, the patterns in the Book of Kells can’t supply her those words here. Later, she reflects even upon her own eventual death, stating the reality of it plainly, yet also, as is classic Crooker, clinging to the good, the beautiful, and the true, embodied in the “radiant / morning, the sun as it turns the dial / of the lake up to ‘glitter,’ polishes the grass til it shines like a traffic light signaling go. . . . ” (“Reading the Leaves”)

Finally, as the book comes to a close in its fourth section, we also reach, cleverly enough, the “rainbow’s end,” which, we discover, is “not glittering treasure, a hoard of coins, / but instead, thorny bushes growing where nothing else / can flourish, blooming for all they’re worth, / just because they can” (“Gorse”). With the poet, we then “[p]raise the power / of the small and hardy. The resurrection rising / out of duff and detritus. Watch their slow / small fires burn” (“Crocosmia”). In these ways, Crooker’s poetry perceptively coalesces with folio 32v, in which “Jesus sits, not on the Throne of Heaven, / but on an ordinary blue kitchen chair. He’s barefoot / and holding a book. . . . He’s framed, / not by angels, but by farmhouse peacocks” (“Books”). The world, and the word, may be sacred, but they are not out of reach and they are not vague abstractions either. They are alive and somehow, palpable.

In her ever-humble and self-aware voice, we learn, too, that at her “plain oak desk,” Crooker herself sits “empty-handed, open-hearted, scratching black lines on yellow paper, and hoping that somehow, / like the newly-hatched frogs in the ornamental pond, / [she] will be able to croak [her] way into song” (“Beginning”).  And she has. Indeed, we, her readers, are thankful that as Crooker’s poems begin in delight, they likewise end in wisdom, fulfilling the lofty goal Robert Frost said poetry must strive for. For this book itself is an “unironic rainbow, translucent and fragile, / . . . on a road that ha[s] been cratered and bombed” (“Easter Sunday, 2016). We walk that road every day—“[a]midst the horror, the steady rain / of bad news” (“Planting”)—but here is this poet walking it with us, showing us, too, that “[o]utside the window, the grass is speaking a new dialect, / the language of green, and the daffodils start to mutter, / expressing themselves in the arcane syntax of the wind” (“Linguistics”).

Julie L. Moore is the author of four poetry collections, including, most recently, Full Worm Moon, published in The Poiema Poetry Series by Cascade Books. A Best of the Net and five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she is a previous contributor to Relief. She has also had poetry appear in Alaska Quarterly Review, Image, New Ohio Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and Verse Daily. Moore is an Associate Professor of English and the Writing Center Director at Taylor University. You can learn more about her work at