Oct/Nov 2010 Reviews & Interviews

The Book of Common Prayer

Break the Glass
Jean Valentine.
Copper Canyon Press. 2010. 82 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-321-5.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Jean Valentine's first book, Dream Barker, selected by Dudley Fitts for the 1965 Yale Younger Poets Award, met the standard for the series: exceptional but not too exceptional. Its attractions included a poem to Sylvia Plath:

No one ever talked like that before, like your
Last white rush in the still light of your
Last, bungled fever: no one will any more.

That said, she did "talk" more than a little like the pre-Plath Plath of The Colossus and The Bell Jar. As much to the point, the poems in the volume were mainstream, discursive, riddled with fashionably ironic Biblical references. Men were (Eliot-ically) dry. Women were water.

Perhaps it was, in part, because there was no competing with Plath that the poems of Valentine's ensuing eleven volumes are progressively more spare until they arrive at what can only be called the minimalist poems of Break the Glass. But it was also in part because, by 1964, when her manuscript was selected, Valentine was already stricken with the incongruence of her world:

Over the Times we talk about Ho,
Allen Dulles, Malcolm X: take up our Signet classics.

In the poem "September 1963" she wanders off to read while her friends dance in the park:

Glad, derelict, I find a park bench, read
Birmingham. Birmingham. Birmingham.
White tears on a white ground...

In a few years all the Aquarian world of youth will be dancing in the park, will know Ho, Dulles, X, and Martin Luther King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail", and they will need a different poetry.

Jean Valentine already needed a new poetry. Unbeknownst to her then, she would never stop needing a new poetry, ever less contextual, more fragmented, accepting that it could rescue less and less from the violence of history and finding ways to rescue what it could, progressively filled with more white space.

Break the Glass is Jean Valentine's most recent new poetry. Now, in her 70s, she has the longer eye of mortality to inform bone-spare poems. The poems have become as simply lyrical as "The Japanese garden" about which she writes:

The Japanese garden
is tilting quietly uphill

—eleven wet green stones,
bamboo, and ferns—

Their descriptions are accomplished with the few suggestive brush strokes of Sumi-E: "just-born rabbits," "a straight-faced little moon," "the poor, standing about / like wildflowers." Punctuation is selected (or abandoned) for function.

Familiar elements have persisted from the earlier poetries. The world remains a cold and nonchalantly brutal place against which one has a quotidian existence to somehow make poetry of and friends. (The lovers—once so much part of her defenses—are in the past now.) But the poems of Break the Glass are more often wistful, more lyrical. Poems such as "On a Passenger Ferry" and "Traveler" are so lyrically fine as to have the quality of curios.

And these poems are more mortal, far more. In "I thought It's time" Valentine considers retiring from life into the forest, a sadhu with her begging bowl. (By the end of 13 magical lines, her cupped hands are her begging bowl and the forest is coming to her.) Several faces for god are tried out, looking for a composite she can choose to believe she has always believed in, can be comforted by. Prayer is explored.

She begins to be reabsorbed into the Eternal Woman from which she came. By the final section of Break the Glass, Lucy, the famous 3 million year old Australopithecus skeleton, discovered in 1974, has become her goddess:

Lucy I entreat you
I will not let thee go except thou bless me.

The ironical Biblical reference remains a signature touch after 45 years. The schizophrenic painter Martín Ramírez—the wounded child the Eternal Mother loves most—is Lucy's prophet:

Martín Ramírez
be with me!
"It looks just like a vagina,"
a bystander said. Yes
it is a vagina, with trains and tunnels,
and like in the great cathedrals,
a clitoris, a starry one,
and a womb...

Valentine's life itself, stripped to essentials, has been honed to the ritual:

I wash my plate and spoon
as carefully as a priest.

Her cathedral is the body of Woman, the holy place she has worshipped in every day of her life. Break the Glass is her book of common prayer.


Previous Piece Next Piece