Pink Museum by Caroline crew
Big Lucks Books, 2015; 166 pp
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
In “How Do I Love Thee?”, a poem smack-dab in the center of poet-essayist Caroline Crew’s first full-length collection Pink Museum, Elizabeth Barrett Browning gets a shout-out. “it is important/ to forgive the dead,” Crew writes, “you cannot be sure/when they will come back//or if you were once like them.” While Barrett Browning was a beyond poetry-famous English Romanticist, I’ll admit to having spent almost zero time with her work. Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?,” however, is a composition that even nonreaders might recognize. E.B.B.’s first line, for a quick memory jog: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Counting the ways Crew’s book engages with its predecessors and forebears may be an exercise in futility, or, as she writes in the book’s eponymous poem, “to colour history as a spectrum/where does the hand begin to paint.” How to accurately shade influence and heritage in the outlines of one’s work? A note appending Pink Museum credits Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese with supplying titles for most of the individual poems in the collection, and the dedication prefacing the book speaks more firmly, commemorating “all the dead women.” Yet, while a title like “How Do I Love Thee” may signal ancestry to readers, most of the book’s poems do not trumpet their “original author.” Neither do these poems collage—at least, not to my eye—works from Barrett Browning’s verse. Instead—and, perhaps, more interestingly—they take their place in the processional, in the literary trajectory, as their subject.
How fitting, then, that the rot and ruin of female expression concerns, somewhat obliquely, the speaker(s) in a book that’s title refers to a space where old and revered relics converge. In Crew’s hands, the conflation of motherhood and literature is framed and mounted, announced in a prefacing, untitled poem when the speaker observes: “I built for you this grand opening/how to give life is nothing/until I fetch it again in my mouth.” These lines suggest that a procreative act is simple, “nothing,”; what requires skill—and a sort of teachable skill—is the ability to convey, to “fetch.”
While throughout Pink Museum poems like “How Do I Love Thee?” bloom up and perish (I mean, only, that they sometimes end rather quickly), the book’s strength lies in its two long poems, sequences, really, that accomplish, in short, dense lines, tremendous work. I especially liked “Pink Museum,” where the aforementioned themes are grounded in an imaginary physical space. “Well-lacquered [shelves],” “the catalogue of selected silence,” “a new corridor”: in this poem, a group of girls wanders, “proceeding as expected just the same,” showing what it is to be complicit in history, “what it is to be surrounded by glass.”