Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Watching Sky by Judy Brackett Crowe

THE WATCHING SKY, Judy Brackett Crowe. Cornerstone Press, Room 486 CCC, 1801 Fourth Avenue, Stevens Point, WI 54481, 2024, 107 pages, paperback, www.uwsp.edu/English/cornerstone


            Judy Crowes forthcoming The Watching Sky is a capacious collection, touching on a wide range of subjects with striking lyrical narrative poems. Mathematics, ornithology, multiple species of oak trees (including Quercus lobata and Quercus suber), Eudora Welty, visual art, Kyiv, syzygy, and scores more arcane objects and esoteric ideas make their way into a variety of forms. Free-verse, prose poems, sonnets, contrapuntals, and various nonce forms populate this collection. Writing within this wide of a bandwidth, lesser poets might fly off into abstractions, begin repeating themselves or making predictable gestures for lack of diction, but Crowe remains fresh and challenging in each poem by habituating the concrete, sensorial level of language, even when pointing toward the ineffable. Inside the Pearl” is an example that creates multiple levels of meaning, providing abstract truths within a metaphorical sensibility:

            She swallows the pearl           uncultured it is

            so is she           inside the pearl

            sleeps mustard seed or

                                                        a babes clipped nail or

            a kittens eyelash or

                                                        something else alive and

            spinning warm

                                      she walks toward

            the far distant middleness

            with a pebble in

            her shoe           she put it there

            to remember   always

            that shes of this earth

                                                            not of the air

            she cannot fly     doesnt want

            to fly   all that air swishing

            as she swings ever higher

            toward the moon

            tonight barely one night

            past full

                          she swallows the moon        


The remaining lines of this ars poetica are as emblematic of every poem in The Watching Sky as is this opening for remaining of this earth” while pointing towards the moon,” the poet’s language having swallowed” poetrys familiar images [i.e. the moon], allowing in the end, the pebble, / the spinning night / to save her.” And in some poems, the poet states this mission outright as in The Dirt”—“Youll find the truth in the dirt / damp black honest dirt / Yes the truth and the lies and the silences / The orchid begins in green hush needing / no soil and giving up fragrance / for improbable beauty.” Even when using some abstractions as in this passage, Crowe gestures toward the lyricism that permeates this collection, always balancing the abstract with the concrete.

            Poems are organized into eight sections that remind this reviewer of Gustav Freytags narrative progression from introduction (She” and Words and Pictures, Song”); to rising action (What Matters,” The Doing and the Having Done,” “The Girl,” and Some Others”); to the climax (What Happens); and finally, denouement (This Day Again”).

            Most poems from section one (SHE) contain she” in the first line—“She swallows the pearl…” “Is she dreaming this life or some other?” “Once on a long-ago winters day she drew” “The year she had the breakdown” “She cant hear them falling,” and She wakes up dreaming, goes through the day somewhere”—so that by the end of this introductory section, we have come to know quite a bit about her, as well as the direction this book may take. Dreaming Awake” begins with these lines:

            She wakes up dreaming, goes through the day somewhere

            else, traipses through sleet and wind, cold sun now

            and then, climbs up scree slopes,

            over and around lichen-painted boulders

            skyward to the saints aerie,

            sheep and dogs musical notes

            in the fields far below


After a circuitous route that structurally alternates between narratives including spread[ing]


cardboard, leaves, woodchips / between berry rows” and a foreshadow of berry scent in the


breeze,” a walk to Mary Ardens farm, a wade through high grasslands, where a black-haired


boy on horseback…pleads, / Come along, I can show you a cavern,” and on and on, interspersed

with stanzas about turn[ing] pages eyes skimming word through memorys fog / cant remember what shes read / reads page nine / nine times”—all creating tension both structurally and ideationally—the poem culminates in this final stanza:

                        Some days are like this, forth and back,

                        neither there nor here, al confusion, fatigue,

                        and desultory verve. What else to do by brew

                        passionfruit tea, sigh, pick up the book,

                        turn to page ten.


As within this poem, it is language that drives the organization of the collection, making for delicious side trips and delightful messiness along the way. The poets truth often conforms to music, as in the gorgeous poems, among others Black and Red and Blue on White, 2022,” “Eudora Welty Writes a Story,” “Listening,” and Art & Mathematics” with its concision, repetition, and crafted syntax that minimizes prepositions, particularly in the latter half of the poem, and in the title poem, Watching the Sky” that effectively utilizes prepositions as repeated anaphora, enacting the first two lines and lines later in the poem that articulate a both / and” ideation, rather than an either / or” in a kind of negative capability of simultaneously holding diametrically opposed ideas 

                        Watching the Sky


                           All at once he is no longer young / with his handful of flowers…

                                                W.S. Merwin, Young Man Picking Flowers”


                        All at once he is no longer

                        and yet he will be always

in the beginning and in the forgetting

                        in the young man picking flowers

                        frangipani perhaps whose scent calls up

                        whats been forgotten but not forgotten

                        and in his dreams of wood thrushes

                        of swallows blackbirds

                        of morning sparrows

                        of the garden at dawn and the watching sky

                        he sees his grandmother watching the sky

                        and his mother always looking back wondering

                        and he wanders down the small roads

                        following the dog following the sounds

                        hymns for his father

                        bells and bleating dying sheep

                        the old voices and the new

                        wandering always in wonder

                        at the trees without names

                        at these green hills

                        these sun-hit fields

                        these dark mountains on these blessed days

                        at the vespers hush in the gloaming

                        at the imperfect that remains perfectly imperfect

                        at the unfinished that now is finished


In the midmorning” of the book (in section three—WHAT MATTERS—with action rising and tension increasing between the fulsome present and a future with certain death, a poem appears that is as musical as any poem in the collection. Read aloud, One Early-Summer Day, Looking Back” becomes a tutorial for sound work from the opening to the final stanza, and an analysis of its images teaches readers how to read Crowes work and poets how to show” rather than tell.

What begins in this first stanza with the opening phrase Lying on my cot…” reminds one of the famous poem by James Wright, Lying in a Hammock at William Duffys Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” However, instead of ending with a chicken hawk flying over the farm and the poets reminiscing ending with the realization that his life has been wasted, Crowes poem ends with an awakening to a red-shouldered hawks keening…as he gyres up / above the pines and swoops down, his early morning survey complete,” and the poets assessment that It will be a good day.” 

In this poem, as well as in the entire collection, there is a virtuosic handling of images that demonstrates a progression and recapitulation of lifes truths through its various stages from the perspective of early mid-life (Early-Summer Day”) looking backwards from the end After dinner” to the beginning. These images both celebrate life and give encouragement to move forward as in this first stanza (plenty of stars / to follow, and planes and satellites criss-crossing”), as well as foreshadowing lifes end (dwindling patch of sky…blotted out more and more…”). In the remainder of the poem, these images of both life and death de-intensify as is appropriate for the reversal of the day. In stanza two, “…an October Glory, her leaves / shimmery-green now, but… / come October, will wear her glorious red coat.” In stanza three, a cat yowling when she runs / out of steps, out of sunlight”). In stanza four, gray squirrels that strip / dead branches from the lindens,” and in the penultimate stanza, tomato plants with a few yellowing leaves.”

            One Early-Summer Day, Looking Back

            Lying on my cot on the deck, I scan my dwindling patch of sky.

            Its shrunk over the years as the oaks and cedars and pines

            have blotted out more and more blue. Still, there are plenty of stars

            to follow, and planes and satellites criss-crossing. A hawk screeches

            from across the creek. A few bats scurry-fly under the eaves and one

            by one settle upside down.


            The day quiets and shrivels to shadows and soft light.


            After dinner—arugula and watermelon salad, balsamic-glazed grilled

            chicken breasts, bread and wine—we hear the usual two deer curl up

            on the Shasta daisy bed under the maple, an October Glory, her leaves

            shimmery-green now, but she is already pulling back sugars and,

            come October, will wear her glorious red coat.



Mid-afternoon, inside, ceiling fans try to move the air. Alice the old cat

            creeps up the stairs with the sun, one at a time, stretches, and climbs

            again, cat-napping her way up the thirteen steps, yowling when she runs

            out of steps, out of sunlight. I think about where well plant her, near Fritz,

            near Flynn, when she dies. It wont be long.


            Noontime, the jays and crows—they are cousins—fluster and chase and

            carry on their endless raucous conversations. Three gray squirrels strip

            dead branches from the lindens, filling their mouths with bark, ends

            sticking out every which way looking like handlebar mustaches

            gone wild (nest materials, I assume), and they scramble and chatter

            their way up into the branches of the tallest linden.


            Midmorning, I tidy the tomato plants that are trying to escape their cages,

            tie tendrils to wire, pinch off a few yellowing leaves, pull weeds

            along the berry rows, check the few hard small nectarines for bird pecks.

            This year I swear Ill get the fruit before the birds do.


            I wake to the red-shouldered hawks keening and watch as he gyres up

            above the pines and swoops down, his early morning survey complete,

            to perch atop the bar of the swing or on a fencepost or on a low branch

            of a particular ponderosa. The hawk has been here every day for a week

            or so. He will soon move on. It will be hot. It will be a good day.


And then Crowe moves on into the remainder of this collection that feels like a new and selected,” each section seeming like a gathering of best poems from another prize-winning collection, all tied together by craft and voice and tension and resolution and form that enhances and embellishes necessary content. Whether you are a poet or merely a reader of poetry, any day you dip anywhere into Judy Brackett Crowes The Watching Sky “…will be a good day.” 

Judy Brackett Crowe's stories and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. She has taught Creative Writing, English Literature, and Composition at Sierra College, in Grass Valley, California. She is a member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

She believes that the right words in the right places are worth a thousand pictures, and, as other writers have said, she writes to discover what she thinks.

Born in Nebraska, she has lived in the small town of Nevada City, in California's northern Sierra Nevada foothills for many years. She is married to photographer Gene Crowe, and they have 3 children and 4 grandchildren. 

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