Little Boat by Jean Valentine
(Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2007)
Jean Valentine's poems begin as air and seem to climb higher and higher until they reach a height at which they seem no longer to be made of anything at all. They are light and end up somehow lighter. They are poems always that search for an opening to sneak into, from a place that is itself already an opening. The language she chooses to employ in her searching little poems is astonishingly simple. Simple words become strange in the context of a Valentine poem. Simple as stone. And as marvelous. One way to begin a poem is with an ordinary statement, such as: "I was over at your place,/but you weren't there." Then proceed to notice a series of weirdly anchored details: "a leafy gold screen" and "a gate, locked, double-locked" and "thick double-velvet drapes." Everything is shut, protected doubly. "And then, out of the winter blue,/there leapt from branch to branch this/monkey-armed woman." Detail leads to myth, leads to wide-eyed surprise and dislocation. The language is English, but the push is ancient and unfamiliar. Valentine tells us: "She was Addiction -- I guess." The narrator is allegorically unsure, like language is unsure. How to tell the truth around the question of what one perceives. (Hence the truth of myth because it is made from propositions enfolding opposites.) The poem is titled "In Memory" -- an elegy. It interrogates its subject, demands to know: "Did you ever think/you could do something useful?" Which seems to be the question one would ask of a life poorly lived, a life undone by even its own standards. "You know./Radiant?" More rhetorical feint than inquiry, that final question -- that "radiant?" -- seems to suggest the poem's knowledge, implied but never spoken. The radiant life is possible. But you, sadly, didn't fine your way towards it. No, you really didn't.
Little Boat is Valentine's tenth book, and it is filled with poems as mysterious as "In Memory." These are poems swiftly encountered, yet even so the sense that they are the result of careful distillation is difficult to resist. You imagine Valentine looking at these poems, trimming them, selecting what is at their core and framing it with space and the fewest words possible. It isn't easy to form the minimal when all around is noise and excess, but Valentine searches for its gifts and finds it a proper place.
The books is neatly divided into six sections. Certain sections seem rigorously gathered. "From the Questions of Bhanu Kapil" is made up of five poems that respond to direct questions, such as "What do you remember about the earth?" and "What is the shape of your body?" This interrogation unsettles the reader, pitched as it is in the realm of some final knowledge. About the earth, Valentine remembers that she "listened to the coal train" and that she "whirled" and "davened"; that she lay on her bed as her "throat sang." She was, she tells us, "satisfied" by the earth. Such a quiet admission. As for the shape of her body, Valentine answers:
Staunch meadows for the children
your thin ghost-body
Whatever kind of eyes
you have now, lend to me --
In Valentine, evasion is only partial. Her "thin ghost-body" comes to us from across the river, hauling an other-worldly longing, almost a begging. Let me have your eyes.
In the section titled "A Bowl of Milk", one poem "The Harrowing" extends over three pages, yet it is only sixteen short lines. As always, in late Valentine the sense one gets is held briefly like water in the hands. Since loss is everyday, death must be always proximate. It can intrude at any time, or seems to intrude: "the piano was being tuned/-- was that the night --/& space." The poem concludes:
Blessed are those
who break off from separateness
theirs is wild
What separates us, what banishes us, will fall away when we "break off" to possess -- to receive -- a heaven that is "wild." How that adjective employed with such care resonates within this simple poem of undemonstrative beauty.
Like the great poets from the East, Valentine comes at you slowly and with reserve. She would just as soon point the way with the shadow of a father carrying five buckets (vide "The Father was a Carrier") as with map and compass. True, a religious faith is occassionally part of her project -- its humility and kindness and reverence -- though she is no dogmatist, clearly having no interest in recruiting anyone. At her best, Valentine leads you to rather precise mysteries. Like these concluding lines, from the "Strange Lights" section made up of five hospital poems:
Now you, Ohio
your winter fields like covers
over me --
Rather than closing the poem down, Valentine opts to open it up, to leave us with a parting gesture that is itself nearly an allusion.
Jon Cone is a Canadian writer who lives with his family and two cats in Iowa City.