Michelle Blake
Finalist

Most dear in the Double Realm:
The Poetry of Jean Valentine

Jean Valentine is small and white-haired. When she greets me at the elevator, she is full of an energy that shines in the dim hallway. Inside her three-room apartment, a woman is there helping out, Christine, who comes from nine to one every weekday. After she has introduced us, Jean says, “I’ve lost most of my short-term memory, did I tell you that?”

In fact she has written that in almost every email. We have met only on email—I wrote her a note about her poems. I had developed a writing habit of copying out one of her poems in my notebook each morning, and then starting my own work. I had become more and more interested in the various ways a poem can make meaning, and I needed a way to shake loose from the expected—the build of details, the twist, the line that grounds the arc and unites the images.

A Jean Valentine poem doesn’t accrue that way—the poems move from image to image, phrase to phrase, sometimes without obvious connections. The stanzas are like stones across a stream—a small leap to each one, with water and energy flowing around them, urging us across. The spaces between the stanzas are crucial; they are where the reader rests in silence, though there is a kind of silence behind and throughout all the poems, the words as well as the spaces, as if we are listening, with the poet, for what is being said somewhere else, on the other side.

I had read her earlier work when I was younger—when we were both younger—and then lost track of it. I wasn’t ready. Last year, the wonderful poet Aracelis Girmay reintroduced me to the newer poems. When I returned to these in my sixties, I didn’t know how to read them at first, but I knew I needed to learn. I felt immediately that Jean, or her work, or both, were the teacher, or teachers, I had not found. Once I got used to reading these poems, I suspended my need for the project of making sense—and began to learn how to wait and listen.

I began to think that if I had met Jean in my twenties, I would have become a truer poet much earlier. To begin with, her generosity and kindness would have been a refreshing change from much of the teaching I encountered, but more importantly I could have used the permission she and her poems bestow—jump, drop, roll, get beyond.

In any case, I wrote Jean a thank you note, to tell her how important these poems, from Break the Glass and Shirt in Heaven, had become in my life and work. She wrote back—

Thanks so much for writing your kind note.  I’m not very good on the computer — did you say where you live?  If you are near NYC I’d be glad to meet you and   read your poetry with you some time.  I’m not        teaching now, and I miss it.  I’m now 84 and still   writing, but miss the company of poets,   though I see    poet friends from time to time and we share our work, which is a blessing. In any case, bless you for writing, in every sense! With all my best, Jean

And when I received this, I wanted to meet her. I didn’t consciously desire anything specific from the meeting, but I had a longing to learn more about working with language and images the way she does.

We sit on the two stools in her kitchen, gossiping. It is poetry gossip, who we knew, who we worked with, who was a good teacher, who was good-looking. And it is slowly occurring to me that I am wasting time, that Jean is winding down, and we have not read poems. We have not talked about our own poetry. And I see I do want something specific. I want that.

One of my favorite poems in Break the Glass is “I thought It’s time,” in which the poet wonders about going into the forest with a bowl, and talks to someone named Jack.

Because I admire the work of the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, I imagined that he was the Jack in the poem and that he and Jean were friends, a fiction that delighted me. So in the kitchen I ask her, “Do you have a meditation practice?”

She shakes her head. “Not really.”

“Oh,” I say. “I’m surprised, because of that wonderful poem that ends with the trees walking down Eighth Street, hands cupped like bowls.”

“That is a wonderful image,” she says, with enthusiasm. “Who wrote it?”

“You did.”

She throws back her head and laughs.

“Do you want to hear it?” I ask.

“Oh, I would love that.”

So I read her the poem.

            I thought It’s time

I thought It’s time to go into the forest with a bowl.

Maya said, It’s all one thing,

            student, householder, forest.

The blue man said,

            You are the forest and the bowl

–as he made a trail of tobacco, or cornmeal,

back to the foot of my chair.

Jack said,

            You don’t need

            a bowl. Putting his cupped hands together

in front of him on Eighth Street

–the trees walking toward us

hands cupped in the light of Eighth Street.

When I finish, she is quiet. Then she says, “I wish I were still that woman.”

Without thinking, I respond, too quickly, “But, Jean, most people are never that woman.” And while that is true, and while it is a compliment, it erases another truth, the one she is expressing.

And I see, then, that I have missed too many signals. She did not seem frail when we met at the elevators, but she does now, two hours later.

I would be happy staying for two more hours, reading our poems out loud, talking, wandering. Her wandering seems so much a part of who she is, and what she has written over the years. It is not troubling to me. But surely it is troubling to her.

It is time for me to leave.

After I use the bathroom, I come back into the kitchen and say, “Jean, I’m going to be really sad if I don’t read you one of my poems. Do you have time for that?” Meaning, do you have the energy for that?

“Of course,” she says, again with enthusiasm, sitting back down on the stool.

So I read her the first of four poems I have written for my son, poems I wrote after beginning the practice of copying one of her poems into my notebook before turning to my own writing. She is generous, kind, specific in her response.

Two days later, I receive this email,

Dear Michelle, It was so good to have that warm visit with you, and I am only sorry that I didn’t see or hear more of your own poetry…the one you read to me just before you left was deeply beautiful, for all its pain, and I would love a copy of it if you have time to send it.  Many thanks, and I hope we will meet again!

Al the best,

Jean

I do send it, and then a day later, I send her one of my favorites of her own poems,

“Traveler.”                     

            Traveler

A matchbox painted and figured
with five gardeners
and thirty-seven flowers, red and blue,
a pretty garden.
One little fellow stands off.
Anybody can see
love is all around him,
like the blue air. Most
dear in the Double Realm
of music, he is a Traveler.
He stands off, alone.
When somebody dies, as is the custom,
he burns the place down.

It has seemed to me lately, when I read poetry, that a lot of people are writing poems that consist of image stacked upon image, some evoking or aligning with the physical world, some not. But when I reach the end of many of those poems, I think, “Huh,” a dull thud, because I can’t find the unifying impulse in the poem.

When I reach the end of one of Jean’s poems, of this poem, I think, “Oh. Oh, yes.” I have listened, with the poet, to the voice on the other side, and that has allowed me to travel a great distance and go somewhere I have never been. But I know that place. I recognize it.

When I taught writing, one of the hardest things to explain to students was that dreams have a logic; they are often messages, of a sort, and when we can reassemble them, image as well as tone, we can see why the events happened as they did in the dream. When writing a dream, I always insist, it’s important to respect and try, really try, to honor that logic.

Jean’s poems are not dream-like, but like dreams they have their own pure logic. When we listen and wait, we then move into the world of the poem, with the poet, and watch it unfold from inside out. The logic is determined by the contours and characters of the world that the poem creates within its twelve or twenty or thirty lines. I would not in a millions years try to restate or explain Traveler, but I do know what it means.

Means. As a teenager, I was a great fan of MacLeish’s poems, especially “What Any Lover Learns”—“Water is heavy silver over stone./ Water is heavy silver over stone’s/ Refusal.” Over the years I’ve been dismayed to see the well-known closing lines of his poem Ars Poetica, “A poem should not mean/ But be,” get dragged out and dusted off to challenge the very notion of meaning in poetry. The poem is painstakingly accurate, the images acting as sensual definitions throughout—“A poem should be palpable and mute/ As a globed fruit,// Dumb/ As old medallions to the thumb,…” We certainly have no doubt about what MacLeish means here. A poem must be tactile. A poem must exist in the three-dimensional world, stones across a stream.

In the original Ars Poetica, Horace advises us, “You, that write, either follow tradition, or invent such fables as are congruous to themselves.” Horace goes on to instruct that Achilles should be indefatigable and Medea intractable, but I’m more interested in how this suggestion rings true in a poem like “Traveler.” Once Valentine invites us into the world of the matchbox cover, there is a rich congruity of details—the blue air, the Double Realm of music, a Traveler, as is the custom. It is almost the land of the Grimm brothers, but not quite. By the time we get to the last two lines, we’ve wholly entered into this new land where such a stunning and final custom exists. By honoring the congruity of the poem’s images and words, the congruity of the vision, Valentine allows us into this particular universe, one I would have missed if not for this poem. And now I will know it forever.

I want a poem to mean something, but what I mean by that is unclear, even to me. I do not need it to tell a story or make sense in a traditional way. But I do want a wholeness, a congruity that comes from deep inside the language and images and results in the poem being more than a list of weird images—it must be the world in which those things truly exist.

Of course, it is also crucial to add that there is magic here, in all Jean Valentine’s poems, real magic, the kind that can’t be explained. I want that most of all.

When we were in her kitchen, Jean asked me what poets I liked at the moment, new people. Among others, I mentioned Maria Hummel’s book, House and Fire. “She seems to know how to let it all go,” I said.

Jean was standing at the sink, and she turned around and looked at me. “Yes,” she said, nodding her head. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

Release. I imagine one of those old music boxes that has a hidden button to slide or push. When you find the button and push it, the top opens slowly, a melody plays and a solitary figure dances in solemn circles, one arm curved above her head. Surrounding the whole enterprise is the silence it interrupted and the silence that will return when the melody ends. A world in a box.

When I read Jean’s poems, a version of that button gets pushed in my awareness. A lid comes off, a melody sounds, an image rises. At that moment, I am asked to be receptive. When I turn to my own work in that state of mind, I find myself in a struggle between what I used to want the poem to become (an object I could polish and sell) and the sounds and images rising.

There is something all encompassing about turning away from the poem-as-product and turning toward the dancer. I must shift from one practice, one set of beliefs, into another broader set of beliefs—or maybe it is a shift into no beliefs, or at least beliefs with no perceptible boundaries. I focus less on the rectangle of the page and more on a wide and ever widening view of the world.

Nothing is off limits.

Everything unfolds from the center.

Jack said,
                        You don’t need
a bowl. Putting his cupped hands together
in front of him on Eighth Street

–the trees walking toward us
hands cupped in the light of Eighth Street.

 

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