Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Poem: Jean Valentine

If the winter quarter is akin to a mine, I am deep down in it, so very deep  that I have only a memory of what the surface air, the light, the faces up above look like. A mine of fiction, student fiction--and the grade is a steep one. Often when I am making my way through thick tunnels of prose I think of poetry, hear it, long for it, and today I thought of a poet, and of a poem, that has stuck with me since I first read it, back in 1995, when a graduate school classmate introduced me to this poet's work after we had concluded a class teaching 7th and 8th graders how to write poetry. I had never read or even heard of this poet, or the book, Home.Deep.Blue (Alice James Books, 1989) and my classmate might have been reading it for class, for her workshop, for pleasure. Perhaps she was showing the book to some of the students, though I know we didn't read this poem to them in class. I do remember flipping through the book, and the poet's name engrave itself on my mind: Jean Valentine (1934-). And I stopped at this poem: "Everything Starts with a Letter."

In my mind the title became and becomes still the slightly different "Everything Begins With a Letter." But Valentine knows what she's doing, with her starting rather than beginning. Like so much of her poetry, for which she has received many awards, including the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry, for Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003, from which I have copied this poem, "Everything Starts With a Letter" provides only a glimpse, brief as a flash and as bright, into a life, a memory, a psyche, the life and memory and psyche of the speaker, this lyric voice, so full of drama...but we only get a glimpse, as if through a small hole in a boarded-up window, or a keyhole, and we must construct the rest of the story on our own, of the speaker's relation to "Juliana," who makes appearances in other poems in the volume, whose memory raises a mirror, harsh though its reflection be, to the speaker herself. The poem immediately called and calls to mind poems by Julia de Burgos, Arthur Rimbaud, Jaime Gil de Biedma, among others. But it is very much Valentine's own--her own way of entering the lyric dreams poetry alone can create, full of mystery and compelling, especially in the second stanza, which when I read or recall it always makes me want to know and hear more....  As I said, it has remained a little treasure I carry with me up through today. So here it is:


Everything starts with a letter,
even in dreams and in the movies . . . Take
J. Juliana, on a summer afternoon,
in a white silk blouse, and a pale blue-flowered skirt,
--her shoes? blue? but high and narrow heels,
because she asks Sam to carry the plate of Triscuits
into the garden, because she can't manage
the brick path in her heels.
"Oh could you? I can't manage the path in these heels."

J is the letter my name begins with,
O is the letter for the moon,
and my rage shines in my throat like the moon!
Her phoniness, O my double, your and
my phoniness . . .
Now what shall we do?
For this is how women begin to shoot,
we begin with our own feet, men empty their hearts, oh
the false self will do much worse than that,
to get away . . .

Copyright © Jean Valentine, from Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

1 comment:

  1. Jean Valentine is wonderful poet, yet oddly 'under the radar' for so many people. And a very warm and gentle person also. Thanks for posting this. Have you seen her poem about Reginald Shepherd?