Jean Valentine read at the ALSCW local meeting in New York City just now, on November 28, 2016, at Barnard, in an evening graciously co-sponsored by Saskia Hamilton and the program Women Poets at Barnard. The audience filled the handsome Sulzberger Parlor where, as Valentine noted, the portraits of earlier presidents of Barnard, thoughtful, formidable women, seemed also to be listening. Valentine read from her two most recent books, Break the Glass (2010) and Shirt in Heaven (2015), followed by new poems of quiet force and mystery.
The reading prompted first, a grateful hush, then questions and a lively discussion during which Valentine demonstrated how the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer once leapt over the back of a chair to join her and friends at a table at a restaurant. The formal question period flowed into an hour of festive eating, drinking, and clustered conversations, just the kind of fellowship the ALSCW is designed to create.
Here is the way I introduced Jean Valentine:
“‘I lay down under language/ it left me and I slept,’ writes Jean Valentine in the poem “Open” in her recent book, Shirt in Heaven. Often Valentine writes as if she could conjure vision from a realm beyond words, as just as often she writes to commune with the dead in a realm beyond the life-death divide. But it is through words, in the beautiful ambiguity of that preposition, meaning beyond words but also in the medium of words, that Valentine makes her vision into experience for the reader.
The experiences are rich and multiple. Sometimes her poems summon a lost past into the present, as in one of my favorite poems, “Hawkins Stable,” from Break the Glass:
…Under the fields,
the dense, tongue of the cow–
and the horses’ eyes–
and the water from the hand-pump in the sink,
racing like horses.”
Sometimes she questions, radically, what it is to see:
but what is slow”
(“The Valley, from Break the Glass)
Often the poems give a structure and pace for grieving:
She found her tongue on the floor
and paper-clipped it to
the kitchen calendar. This was back in the day
of Separation. Permanence.
(“Her Car,” from Break the Glass)
Sometimes the poems call out to and bring to imaginative life kindred artists: Joseph Cornell, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Reginald Shepherd, Adrienne Rich, Antonin Artaud.
Mystical talk is cheap. Jean Valentine has brought enormous geological pressure and a fierce meditative discipline in language and dream-work to her visions, and in consequence she has made that rare thing, durable poetry.”
With warm thanks so Margaret Ducharme, Saskia Hamilton, and Phillis Levin who helped to arrange this evening.