Tag Archives: Barbara Crooker

Review: Ancilla by Erin Murphy
reviewed by Barbara Crooker

by Barbara Crooker

Ancilla, by Erin Murphy
by Erin Murphy
(2014, Lamar University Press
$15, paper
ISBN: 978-0985083854)

Ancilla, the Latin word for maidservant, gives this collection its title, but Erin Murphy gives it a swerve, a turn, when she quotes Nabokov in the book’s epigraph, “Sex is but the ancilla of art.” Here, in her sixth full-length book of poetry, Murphy takes a look at history from odd and unusual angles: the voices of Schopenhauer’s waitress, Walt Whitman’s cook and cleaning lady, Georgia O’Keeffe’s chauffeur, Tesla’s mother, the imaginary friend of Frida Kahlo, and many others. All of these speakers are minor characters, juxtaposed or related to famous figures, but not the figures themselves. Murphy re-imagines biography, reinvents history, all of it based on solid research, as shown in her meticulous end notes. Each section also includes several “Abridged” poems, erasure poems where the words are taken from texts cited in the title of the poems. In placing these poems within sections containing mostly dramatic monologues, Murphy is, perhaps, making an ironic statement of how time is the great eraser, how the work of even the most well-known can be reduced to a handful of scattered words in the end.

The poems in this collection are typical of Murphy’s style, lean and clean, snappy and jazzy, contained within a page or two. Each poem is a witty little narrative that snaps and waves like a bright flag on the page’s white sky. Meter and rhyme, stanza and line are employed like chisel and mallet; there is nothing excessive here, nothing that feels like it could or should have been whittled away. Humor, too, is another of Murphy’s virtues, especially of the type that English majors will love such as part II in “13 Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens: “The Ice Cream Manufacturer’s Association / responds to ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ // Mr. Stevens, please clarify: / are you for ice cream / or against it?”  And she’s not afraid to employ the pun: “Gustave [Mahler], I composed / myself and became your // bride, swallowing scores / that lay inside me. . . .”  Yet at the same time, most of these monologues are serious and thoughtful, limning in short concise lines the lives and essences of such diverse figures as Beethoven, Mozart, Kant, Bashō, Dickinson, Emerson, et al.

Interspersed with these short narratives are the “Abridged” series, erasure poems made up of words taken from the cited text, in their original order. The number of erased words between each selected word varies. These poems make interesting visual interludes, apart from their arresting lines and images, and remind us of the many ways that history is composed of erasure.

Here is one example:

Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty Sonnet,

The         brazen,

mighty                 woman,

mother                of


with         lips

 yearning         to


our                 shore,

send         these                 homeless

 to                       the



There’s a certain lapidary quality to Erin Murphy’s poems. Each is a little gem, cut and polished, all the dross filed away. Reading this book is like fingering beads in an artfully crafted necklace. But beyond craft, these poems remind us to look harder at the ancillae, those figures, both in history and in everyday life, who are easy to overlook, but whose contributions should never be ignored.


Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 1.

BarbaraCrookerBarbara Crooker’s poems have appeared in magazines such as The Green Mountains Review, The Hollins Critic, The Denver Quarterly, and anthologies such as The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Good Poems for Hard Times (Garrison Keillor, editor), and Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania.

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Nothing Fragmentary: Review of Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis by Lois Harrod

by Barbara Crooker

Fragments from the
Biography of Nemesis

by Lois Harrod
Cherry Grove Collections, 2013

The title of this book may be Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis, but there is nothing fragmentary or unfinished about Lois Harrod’s work.  These are poems cut from the whole cloth, whether Harrod is focusing her attention on the natural world, say exquisitely describing a mussel shell, or widening her gaze to larger issues, pondering the theory of the origin of the universe.  As we read from poem to poem, we realize that Harrod both has her feet firmly planted on the ground, yet at the same time is looking up at the firmament, taking us with her to gaze in wonder at the stars.

In “The Binoculars,” Harrod tells the reader to “peer through the wrong end, / see everything diminishing.”  Here are some of the small things Harrod asks us to notice:  “how water catches the heart  / and brings it to the surface,”  (“Firmament”) “how the lilac mourns for the stars,” (“Poem with Grave Words”)  “the vase . . . filling with moonlight.” (“Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis”)  In these examples, the lines shine with simplicity; there is nothing extraneous added.  In “The Litany of the Mussel Shell,” Harrod links her images in short brisk lines that march down the page:  “black water,” black / sunrise,” “exquisite Chinese ink,” “the inky shell.” Sonically, she gives us “the half-sound shall, / and bell, sharp / and flat, salt washed onto the gravelly beach, a bone / stuck in the throat,” then jump cuts to “the gull, clacking / to the sand crows” to “come and eat, / there is none like me.”  There’s an echo of liturgical language here,  as she tells us that the speaker is “broken as a feather. . . / broken like teeth, / broken / canyons, / broken rivers / that marrow the sea.”  And certainly, this is a message we’ve often heard, our human brokenness, but not one expressed so eloquently in images of the natural world.

Moving from Harrod’s sharp use of minute detail, let’s look at how these poems also open out to  larger themes as she widens her lens, making us think about “the great O of existence” (“Firmament”), “the cornucopia of grief” (“Day Lilies”), “the universe, // that little purse of nothing” (“Cosmogony).  Lois Harrod tells us to look up, mull the great imponderables:  “the earth is reeling / and the firmament [is] a bowl / of drunken milk.”(“Circumference”)   Sometimes, she rises above the poem, above the wrack and ruin of daily life:  “And I began to think of my heart as a ferris wheel / suddenly appearing above balloons and electric bulbs,” a carnival in a field where there was “nothing but a rusty shopping cart upended in the weeds.”  (“Voltages for Different Locations.”)  And isn’t this where we’re standing, too, on a lawn full of dandelions, wanting to rise above the diurnal grind, to see something magical and marvelous?  This is the great gift that Lois Harrod bestows, a view of the world through both micro and macro lenses, letting us go on our way singing because we have read and experienced these wonderful poems.


Published in Cider Press Review, 2013.

Barbara Crooker’s poems have appeared in magazines such as The Green Mountains Review,  The Hollins Critic, The Denver Quarterly, and anthologies such as The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Good Poems for Hard Times (Garrison Keillor, editor), and Common Wealth:  Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania.