Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When Jean Valentine’s Dream Barker won the Yale Younger Poets award in 1965, the award was at its height of legitimation – Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, John Hollander, Alan Dugan & Jack Gilbert had all won in recent years, James Tate would soon enough inaugurate soft surrealism with The Lost Pilot in 1967. Regardless of what your allegiances might be in the “raw” vs. “cooked” debate of the period, many (most?) young poets would automatically buy whatever new volume came out in the Yale series and mull over what this new voice would mean for American poetry. Again, this was a time when the number of publishing poets in the U.S. was still under one thousand, a tenth (or less) of what it is today.

The Yale prize was – still is – thoroughly a creature of the School of Quietude, dating back to 1919 with the lone choice of Ashbery in 1956 as a true exception. Yet several of its selections, particularly during this mid-century period, were noteworthy for how they stood out against that grain – Dugan’s dogged anti-formalism, for example, or the fact that Gilbert when he won was still as much a creature of Jack Spicer’s Magic Workshop as he was the protégé of Stephen Spender & Gerald Stern, Tate steering something akin to a new (for 1967) Third Way between the Boston Brahmin crowd around Robert Lowell and the more apostate ex-Brahmins around Robert Bly, Bill Merwin & James Wright.

In this context, Jean Valentine’s poetry seemed at the time almost entirely out of place – it was linguistically interesting, for one thing, not really confessional or narrative, clearly not an instance of post-Brahmin formalism, yet just as distant from anything one might then have typed as New American. The part I kept coming back to, both there & in confronting her work mostly in journals in the four decades since, was her focus on linguistic surfaces. She wasn’t the only poet of the period who stood out in this way – Eliot Coleman down in Baltimore was fascinated with fragmentation while Donald Finkel in St. Louis had his own unique vision for the longpoem – but such writers seemed very few & far between. I never had any sense that they were in touch with one another, or ever needed to be. Each appeared to be entirely spun from their own devices, with their own concerns, sharing mostly their disconnectedness from the whole shebang.

Valentine has gone on, of course, to have a successful – her collected poems won the National Book Award in 2004 – if relatively subdued career. In over a quarter century of visiting New York, where she’s made her home, for readings, talks, conferences, I’ve never – not once – heard a New York poet ever mention her name. For her sense of “presence” there, she might as well live in Montana.

Yet Little Boat this year from Wesleyan is a true delight. It’s always readable, often brilliant, thoroughly consistent with the author of Dream Barker some 42 years before, and yet now calling out in ways that bring other, very different names to mind than the ones I might have thought of back then – Louise Niedecker, Fanny Howe, Rae Armantrout. Maybe even Graham Foust & Joseph Massey. That, frankly, is great company.

Here, for example, is a poem that strikes me as perfectly constructed:

The Look

Pain took me, but
not woke me – no,
years later, your
woke me:
each shade and light:

to earth-love then
I came,
the first
beach grasses.

Trying to pin this poem down, narratively or figuratively, is simply not possible. That very first word, Pain, can be understood in so many different ways as can the other key noun in the first four lines, look. The poem is figured between an I and you, but you are superimposing your own interpretation even to suggest that there are two people here. What isn’t an imposition of the reader’s fantasy life, however, clearly is this text’s sense of motion: the use of enjambments, twists in the first three lines setting up a sonic entrance of considerable conflict, under which the softer sounding of the paired off-rhymes took/woke look/woke lead the reader right to the first of two colons: each functions as a gate enabling the reader to pass only in one direction. It’s no accident that each of the four words in the first stanza’s last line starts off open (each/and) or soft (shade/light), ending on a harder sound – that won’t happen again until the third line of the next stanza when the halt at the end of first sets up the echo of each in beach, opening to the final almost dreamlike sounds of grasses. I still have no clue what pain or which look might be intended here, but – as is so often the case with Rae Armantrout’s best work also – I find myself wrapped in total belief.

Yet where Armantrout’s poems seem continually to be testing for God, sounding in search of that echo, Valentine strikes me here as being closer to Fanny Howe – one of the texts borrows from Howe’s work & Valentine has dedicated at least one other poem to her prior to this book – in that she takes on the Christian frame very much as given:

Blessed are those
who break off from separateness

theirs is wild

reads one untitled piece in its entirety. Or this more mysterious poem, “Eye of water,” from the book’s final sequence, “Mary Gravidas, Mary Expectant”:

I have nay ben nn
To keep nn safe
I cannot keep them safe

If nn tway
If nn thee

Keep them
Eye of water

Those double ns – four sets of them in the first five lines amaze me. If there is an “ordinary” explanation for such opacity, I don’t have the reference. Yet they function perfectly clearly, like a radio in a movie that gives off static & in so doing tells us into which decade this narrative fits. The poem alternates between despair & prayer – the third line makes clear what the first two enact, yet the ns of the second stanza operate differently altogether, almost as if the poem were coming up against a blind spot, or point beyond which words could not pass. The echoes of Scots & the nearly biblical thee serve to reinforce this.

Valentine often gathers these poems into sequences, yet for me what is so special here is how each never loses focus, never seeks to defer elsewhere. After reading Little Boat straight through, I actually found myself enjoying it more the second time, jumping around from page to page, not trying to construct larger frames. Again & again, Jean Valentine is an argument for the particular. She does it with exceptional grace.