Shirt in Heaven.
Copper Canyon Press. 2015. 80 pp.
Now having entered her ninth decade, Jean Valentine lingers over the passage of a long and rich life. The memories are not gilded. Her father seems to have returned to his family much changed by serving in World War II.
when I was eleven, when you came back from the war,
Sorry, you said, I can't speak, it's,
The lines are poised between waking and dream with Valentine's characteristic ambiguity.
We meet him again in the next poem, in the same penultimate section of Shirt in Heaven, which her parents dominate together with a sister-like Adrienne Rich (and an inexplicable dash of St. Francis):
The last time I saw you, it was winter, your hand
held hard to my hand, you asked
"How long are you here for?"
Or was it her father? Perhaps she had an older lover who finished the task her father served of opening her up to let the words poor out:
When you died, I dreamed
You had fallen asleep on the subway
When I woke up
my clothes were covered with writing,
my hair was sentences, full of twigs...
No, it was her father, at least in the ways that mattered, and he was untouchable, the tree. Their relationship was an agon of blossoming that burst into seed.
It would be a mistake to think Valentine has become blatantly sentimental or confessional. She does, however, write freely, almost obsessively, about those she has loved returning to her in dreams. They return with glimpses of favorite pets, hinted backdrops, symbolic props. Valentine's fragmentary mature style accommodates the cryptic nature of the dream world particularly well.
Also, the new sense of the magic that dreams can bring her and her readers is provided, in this way, without need of mystical constructs. As in previous volumes, the imagery of water, ladder, window, door, remains spare, carefully rationed, prosaic. Her gradual going over into the world of dreams, however, cannot help but heighten the charge each image carries.
The habit of dedicating poems to forebears and friends in the craft remains, as well. A quote from once trendy Artaud introduces the final section. A deceptively simple and stunningly insightful quote from John Cage ends the poem "Bury your money." Of Nadezhda Mandelstam she recalls:
She took her pocketbook,
her clothes, set out,
no company, no deeds,
a hoard of words.
Her close friend Reginald Shepherd has already appeared in a dream poem in her previous volume Break the Glass. A comment he made, during his life tragically truncated by cancer, remains with her: "There's never enough world for you." Each word becomes the end-word of a line of "Poem with endwords by Reginald Shepherd."
The unnamed lover and teacher, long dead, remains always present, appearing here in one poem, there in another, and perhaps there in a phrase. There are hints it is he who she is addressing in "I'm going to sleep":
I'm going to sleep now
in case you visit my dream
At 81 years of age, surely so many of the people who enriched her life are no longer with her in the waking world. It seems a gift and a strength that they can come to her not only in the past tense but in the present, in dream, and what is almost dream: poetry.
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