. . . . . . .
The title to Jean Valentine's new book LITTLE BOAT seems to me indicative of her work in which the domestic and the seen become fragment and artifact in memory. Valentine's poems enact the artifact of language, in which fragments, bits, sensual flashes bear the weight of metaphor. What is the "little boat" and what does it mean? The literal sure, but intuitively we expect--even understand--that it is also something more. The body that bears our spirit? The book that carries our voices and poems? Certainly. In Valentine's work, a fragment of domestic language delivers the weight of feeling, the spiritual weight, and still maintains ineffability. In Valentine, metaphor is mystery, like experience. In Valentine, furthermore, experience IS metaphor, and meaning--spiritual.
In the poem "La Chalupa, the Boat" her poetic strategy is clear: to mark experience with intuition, a blind understanding. Inside the "blue boat painted with roses, / white lilies--" she says "I am poling / my way into my life. [. . . .] It seems / like another life". Her poetry, for me, is experiential, phenomonological. She's not giving us narrative journalism, to record exactly what happened when she was twenty, but a kind of shorthand for intuitive experience, for an abstraction: spiritual memory. Even more importantly, she does so without granting us any kind of discursive understanding. We're not told what kind of lesson any experience should offer. If her poetry gives explanation, it is so she, with a blindfold on, can understand the perameters of intuitive knowledge, which Kant said should be inexplicable. Inexplicable knowledge? Ah, true poetry.
In some poems there is an elusiveness reminiscent of Williams, as in "Gray":
"the order of the mother"
one degree Fahrenheit
Expect sleet or snow[. . . . . ]west coming east
[ . . . . . . ]You may not have wanted to be there
[. . . . . . .]It may have been because of the pain
helicoptor[ . . . . . ]on your left side
child[. . . . .]on your right
But it is precisely the elusive nature of meaning that embues her work with such compelling and credible force. In very few lines, she insists on tenderness toward mystery. In the 6 line poem "All around the house" she describes the outline of a room, around which "they" are lying:
All around the outside of the room I was given
they were lying, uncovered
in plastic rags, newspaper, rusted tin;
lying right up against the aluminum siding
of the room I'd been given,
as if it gave off warmth, the siding.
Instead of explaining the literal moment, journaling the historical incident, here Valentine is explaining emotional memory--she is journaling spiritual incident. "They", "the room", "the siding", "the warmth", even the fact that the speaker is "given" the room, all begin to take on metaphorical import. The repetition of "the siding" at the end is a kind of carress; it announces love. The conditional "as if" helps to imply a larger meaning than the literal. It implies more than the literal when we ask ourselves what the poem refers to. That simple phrase supports another reading, for isn't this a poem aout the body and the spirit? A mother and children? A rented room and puppies huddling against it for warmth? Whatever the literal might be, the metaphorical certainly speaks to our desire for comfort, for kindness, for deliverance, for warmth.
Valentine's poems, moreover, seem to question whether there is any difference between history and dream. For Valentine, the daily spoken is the broken artifact of meaning, and even religious language takes on this weight. In her poem "But your touch", the "Lord" is an artifact of both Christianity much as it is of Eastern Hinduism throughout the rest of the book. Valentine often refers to Lord as "Madonna", one place directly to "Mary and Gnesh" and later in the book it becomes relative to other Eastern Buddhas. In this book we must ask ourselves what is the "Lord"?, much as we had to ask ourselves what is "the little boat"? Again, Valentine insists on intuitive meaning, and not dogmatic definition:
But your touch was everywhere, Lord
to be accomplished
though no one could see it
A great human thing was being accomplished
:[. . . . .]it drew every last part of him
[. . . . . . . . . ] : the lost sailors, diving for mines
off Korea. Every white hair,
black hair, every invisible
threshold, course and fine.
In another poem, "Lord of the world!", we might even say that "Lord" is something gnostic, pagan, a being that witches conjure:
Lord of the world! [ . . . . .] soft
look at me look at me! [. . . ] faraway
animal made out of dots
up in the other sky, Woman! [. . .] please you
nurse my child, please
nurse my other child.
Rub my hand discovered
caught in the prisoner's hand, rub
with your milk his hand.
Here we experience the human consolations desired by the speaker: "look at me", "nurse", and "rub". But equally as important is the way the religious overture of the poem is driven into the prison. Who is the prisoner? In this, our era, we certainly feel a pang of history. Abu grave, anyone? This underlines the metaphorical prisoner that each of us is, each of us with a body. Valentine's poetry succeeds for me in reminding us that the political act is also a spiritual act.
Friends and Strangers, in her poetry we remember that experience is mystery, and that real memory is a kind of dream.
To my soul (2)
Will I miss you
in the next life?
And you & I, my other, leave
the body, not leave the earth?
And you, a child in a field,
and I, a child on a train, go by, go by,
And what we had
give away like coffee grains
brushed across paper . . .
. . . . . . .
This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.
My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.
FRIENDS AND STRANGERS
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