It was an odd place to find a poet. She was seated at the end of a long conference table (the kind that hosted meetings that were anything but poetic) in a room, not much bigger than the table, designed for getting to the point rather than ruminating in metaphor. Yet, there we sat, some twenty odd folks (and I do think most of us were odd) on the ground floor of the Duke Clinic building, waiting for words to get us through the day.
I was there by happy coincidence. While everyone else had some connection to the hospital, I had come by way of Garrison Keillor, and then Barbara Crooker’s own website calendar, to take my seat next to her son-in-law who was also the one who had put the web site together. The event was sponsored by the Health and Art Network at Duke (HAND), which is a group that meets together regularly (they’re meeting next Friday to discuss James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat”). I don’t know much more about them than that. I’m taken by the idea of intentionally looking at healthcare with an artist’s eye and, I’m assuming, vice versa.
As Barbara read her poems, she dropped details of her life like breadcrumbs, leading us to the deeper connection we shared as human beings. She has a new collection from which she read, Line Dance, and the title poem is less, she said, about the Electric Slide than the kind of spontaneous dancing lines that form at wedding receptions, each person affectionately linked to one another. She read the title poem and I kept looking around the room wondering what connections they shared. From there I began thinking of lines of my own, including the one that ran from me to Jimmy to his construction partner who fell off a roof yesterday and was in a room in Duke Medical Center awaiting surgery on his two broken wrists. I was going to see him after the reading.
Barbara lives at the intersection of health and art. Her poetry reflected her acquaintance with grief and with joy and the groundwater of faith that fed her words and her being. She has an autistic son, survived a still birth, had another daughter survive a traumatic brain injury – and those were the things she talked about. When she read her poems, she used her words this way:
This week, the news of the world is bleak, another war
grinding on, and all these friends down with cancer,
or worse, a little something long term that they won’t die of
for twenty or thirty miserable years–
And here I live in a house of weathered brick, where a man
with silver hair still thinks I’m beautiful. How many times
have I forgotten to give thanks? The late day sun shines
through the pink wisteria with its green and white leaves
as if it were stained glass, there’s an old cherry tree
that one lucky Sunday bloomed with a rainbow:
cardinals, orioles, goldfinches, blue jays, indigo buntings,
and my garden has tiny lettuces just coming up,
so perfect they could make you cry: Green Towers,
Red Sails, Oak Leaf. For this is May, and the whole world
sings, gleams, as if it were basted in butter, and the air’s
sweet enough to send a diabetic into shock–
And at least today, all the parts of my body are working,
the sky’s clear as a china bowl, leaves murmur their leafy chatter,
finches percolate along. I’m doodling around this page,
know sorrow’s somewhere beyond the horizon, but still, I’m riffing
on the warm air, the wingbeats of my lungs that can take this all in,
flush the heart’s red peony, then send it back without effort or
And the trees breathe in what we exhale, clap their green hands
in gratitude, bend to the sky.
A phrase from one of her other poems stuck in my mind: “the untidy closet of my heart.” “Untidy closet” in a redundancy, as far as my life is concerned. I’ve never had a closet that didn’t look as if it had been ransacked. I don’t have to live long in a place before the tiny little space fills up with things and I lose track of what I have in there. When I begin digging and sorting, often times I become an archaeologist of gratitude, finding little pieces of memory and meaning that pull me back into the line dance of life that is larger than I am.
In the untidy closet that is my heart I will need to find room tonight for the words I heard today and the healing they carried as they fell on me.