Review of Les Fauves by Barbara Crooker

by Marilyn L. Taylor

arbara Crooker, a poet widely known for her breathtaking perspectives on the visual arts, presents an entirely new range of them in her latest and possibly most eclectic collection. The book, titled Les Fauves (after a group of innovative French painters), transports the reader to the turn of a newly remote century-the twentieth-by way of some highly unconventional artworks.

These poems are followed by others motivated by unrelated subject-matters and sensibilities that range from variations on the sonnet to playful poetic puzzles and riddles. We even get an unexpected glimpse of a feisty 21st century jeune fille who tends to express herself in quirky monorhymes—sardonic, sexy, cerebral, and not one bit afraid of a rhyme that links I'm so hot and guy with a yacht-the sort of thing that Stevie Smith might have dashed off a generation or two earlier.

The reader's initial point of departure, however, has to do primarily with fin de siècle French art, and the innovations of the artists dubbed "Les Fauves" ("wild beasts") by some of their contemporaries. Several of them later became luminaries in the annals of Western art.

Crooker knows these artists well. She is aware, for example, that in 1926, one of the most prominent of them—Henri Matisse—completed a dazzling painting that owes much to the influence of his early alliance with Les Fauves. The painting is is titled, perhaps disingenuously, Figure Decorative sur Fond Ornemental ("Decorative Figure on Ornamental Background"). As Crooker describes it in her poem of the same name, we are directed first to the presence of a voluptuous young woman in the center-foreground. The poet speculates, quite reasonably:

You might be looking at her globed breasts
or the round bread basket of her belly…

but we quickly come to understand that this delectable female figure is not intended to be the sole focus of the painting. On the contrary, her presence represents just one among several decorative elements in "a striking collection of them, all carefully arranged against a gorgeously flamboyant background. As Crooker puts it:

…her curves repeat themselves in the lobed gold
borders of the the wallpaper, the decorative motifs
in the rug on the floor…

As if to encourage this interpretation, Crooker further points out that Matisse has strategically seated his model beside an appealing bowl of lemons, or "citron suns," to which she pointedly draws our attention. "You can almost smell the oil on your hands," she suggests, "feel the yellow curdle in your mouth." We find ourselves persuaded to step back, to look beyond the iconic young woman, and to experience the richness of the painting as a whole, lemons and all, with all of our senses.

This ability to transform the reader from mere observer into quasi-participant calls for a rare combination of artistry and ingenuity on the poet's part. Crooker rises to that challenge again and again in these pages. Another example is her unusual take on André Derain's exuberantly colored work titled The Turning Road, L'Estaque (1906). Critics have solemnly described this undulating orange and green townscape as "intense," "audacious," and "scorching,"-but when we examine it through Crooker's eyes it becomes playful, even slightly wacky. She begins the poem with "Here the banana peel road slips down to the sea,"— and ends it with a cheerful proposal:

Let's commit an act of spontaneous
combustion. Let's all go down
in flames.

And why not? agrees the reader, who leaves the art gallery satisfied, ready to be surprised by some completely different poetic approaches.

For example, one of Crooker's most successful non-ekphrastic strategies is based on finding hidden poems in the pages of dictionaries, thesauruses, grammar-and-usage texts, and even among the letters of the alphabet. With a straight face, Crooker saddles one of the latter with the improbable title "The Bossy Letter R", which begins with the following deadpan prediction:

The bossy letter R will turn you crooked,
just when you were sure your goose
was merely cooked…

followed by a string of equally punny takes on the irascible letter R. The poem closes with a summary of the potential havoc an "R" is able to wreak:

beware; on some dark night it'll
hot-wire your cat, tuning its motor,
start it turning: rrrrrrrrrrrr.

Elsewhere, the reader will be delightfully flummoxed by an abecedarian called "This American Life" Here the letters of the alphabet engage in a dizzy spin through the 1950s, from A (Annette Funicello) to Z (zirconia, the famously fake "diamond"). A few pages on, Crooker creates a spinoff on a familiar homework assignment for English class—an essay that sets out to "compare and contrast." As she remembers it:

When I was an undergraduate, I thought it
would be brilliant to write my compare &
contrast paper on the Maidenform three-way stretch
girdle and the three branches of the US government:
executive, legislative and judicial…

Using that unlikely premise, she is somehow able to expand the poem enough to incorporate "control and flexibility", "checks and balances", "power panels" and even "breathable mesh" into the narrative. No small feat for the novice writer of essays—nor for the government, as a matter of fact.

It's a possibility, of course, that readers whose sensibilities lean toward the curmudgeonly might find these pursuits frivolous, or perhaps even unbecoming to a poet of Crooker's stature. In her capable hands, though, what seems to be merely a lexical game can turn into something unexpectedly cerebral. The following is an excerpt from one of the more memorable of these, a words-within-words poem titled "Word Search":

This day draws the story in desultory,
the slow plodding narrative of the snow.
It takes apart collection, finds the low
haunting notes of a cello within.

The word-play here is apparent, but never overdone; Crooker has employed just enough of it to keep the reader attuned to every word.

The closing pages of this remarkable book pay a return visit to the annals of art, focusing on a variety of paintings created in the late 19 th century and well into the 20th, All of them, to a greater or lesser degree, summon the Fauvist painters, but perhaps more distantly. These include works by Raoul Dufy and Henri-Edmond Cross, among others, as well as several works by Vincent Van Gogh, whose post-impressionistic style had been integral to the founding of Les Fauves. Several of these poems focus on Van Gogh's work from the 1880s, which she describes (in a poem titled "Ink") with a discernment that moves well beyond the merely descriptive:

He cross-hatched the patchwork fields
of Arles, the farmhouses and gardens
of Auvers, trees in winter, the scratchy
awns of wheat fields. These were the bones
of the paintings, the things that came before.

A poetic odyssey from Vincent's "bones" to the unfettered extravagances of Les Fauves to Matisse's innovations from a slightly later season is what Barbara Crooker opens up to us here. It is a journey well worth taking.


The most recent addition to The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline is Etel Adnan by Joyce Wilson.

Save the date: A Celebration of the Timeline reaching 75 essays. Lincoln Center, Fordham University (Sponsored by Fordham's Curran Center) Friday, October 20th, 7 p.m.

Sacred Sisters is a collaboration between visual artist Holly Trostle Brigham and award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson, touching on such issues as gender and creativity, connections between the visual and literary arts, and religion and history. Brigham met Nelson at the all-girls prep school, the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in the Fall of 2012. Nelson was visiting the school as part of the Baldwin Write Now program and Brigham was a parent who co-founded the program and was her liaison for the day. They had the opportunity to visit and when Nelson asked about Brigham's work it started a conversation about nuns who were artists and writers. Brigham had already completed three paintings in her Seven Sisters II Series, later renamed Sacred Sisters.

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