Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 27 April 1934. Education: Milton Academy, 1949–52; Radcliffe College, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1952–56, B.A. (cum laude) 1956. Family: Married James Chace in 1957 (divorced 1968); two daughters. Career: Poetry workshop teacher, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, 1968–70, Barnard College, New York, 1968, 1970, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1970, 1973–74, Hunter College, New York, 1970–75; member of the faculty, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York; after 1974, member of the department of writing, Columbia University, New York. Awards: Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1965; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1972; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976. Address: Department of Writing, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, U.S.A.
Pilgrims. New York, Farrar Straus, 1969.
Ordinary Things. New York, Farrar Straus, 1974.
Turn. Oberlin, Ohio, Pocket Pal Press, 1977.
The Messenger. New York, Farrar Straus, 1979.
Home, Deep, Blue: New and Selected Poems. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alice James, 1988.
Night Lake. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, The Press of Appletree Alley, 1992.
The River at Wolf. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alice James Books, 1992.
The Under Voice: Selected Poems. Upper Fairhill, Galway, Ireland, Salmon, 1995.
Growing Darkness, Growing Light. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1997.
Recording: The Resurrected, Watershed, 1989.*
Manuscript Collection: Lamont Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Critical Studies: "On Jean Valentine: A Continuum of Turning" by Philip Booth, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 9(1), 1980; "Standing in the Whole Stare" by Alberta Turner, in Field (Oberlin, Ohio), 40, spring 1989.* * *
In Jean Valentine's first book, Dream Barker (1965), her poems transform dreams into living experience by means of luminous language that echoes the unconscious mind's revelations. In the later volumes Ordinary Things (1974) and The Messenger (1979) she almost reverses this process to show life as veiled and inconclusive, as suggestive rather than definitive, as dreamlike. The elliptical yet lucid craft of these poems presents experience as only imperfectly graspable. The poems ride lightly on the waves of thought, more textures than statements. While in Dream Barker she refers openly to events such as first love, wedding, childbirth, and parenthood, by the 1970s her poems have become mistier and more private in their references. No premature conclusion mars the sense of emotional atmosphere as more important than external incident. She does not try to evade the pain of existence, and it is perhaps her sensitivity to pain that necessitates the oblique approach. She writes of the loss of love, separations, a child's death, or war without raising her voice, always without bitterness or self-aggrandizement.
Valentine's reluctance in her 1970s work to refer overtly to her personal life evidently led to her interest in translation, a way of speaking through another poet's voice but leaving the reader to decide the extent of affinity between the two writers. Ordinary Things includes her translation of the Dutch poet Huub Oosterhuis's "Twenty Days' Journey," a moving meditation on the death of someone the poet has deeply loved. She seems attracted to the poem's dreamnightmare quality of grief, which is completely consuming yet is delicately expressed: "my body turns to mist but still stays alive, /an eye that will not close."
This sense of love enduring beyond personal absence or presence also marks Valentine's own long poem "Fidelities," in which she is reading a letter from a lover. As she reads, her room becomes his, and the park is both present and remembered, becoming another field in which both are walking. Her world is softened and subdued, bounded by solitude, memories, and letters, peaceful days providing perspective on her life. Friendship is a major motif of The Messenger, and in memory she befriends her parents and old acquaintances and cradles and resolves her feelings for them. The poems are sometimes titled merely with a date, and they often quote the words of others in gently free-associative style, usually with a fragmented structure that is faithful to flickering thought.
But thought no longer flickers in the new poems that accompany Valentine's selected work in the 1988 volume Home, Deep, Blue. Here a decided change is revealed, a remission of the subdued, near hesitant mood. More confidence and bravery, less fear of stepping out into experience, result in bolder syntax and images stronger in outline and in bright colors, with brown, blue, and white gold occurring in just the first two poems of the volume. Dream and memory remain prime motivators, but a new earthiness invigorates her reflections. The title "Awake, This Summer" encapsulates her rejuvenation; she has awakened, it seems, from circumstances that quelled her spirit and enchained her words. The season is summer; it is ripeness and love—new, blest, thoroughly enjoyed.
This becomes even clearer in Valentine's collection The River at Wolf (1992). Many of the poems in this volume are set in the American West, some having been written at Ucross, a writers' retreat near Sterling, Wyoming, and all of them, even those on her mother's death, exude a sunlit physicality that strengthens her perennially tender thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Dreams themselves enact more vivid dramas, inviting freer interpretations. "Barrie's Dream, the Wild Geese" begins with "I dreamed about Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell" and continues,
he was talking, and talking to us
he was saying, 'She is the best—'
Then the geese flew over,
and he stopped talking. Everyone stopped talking,
because of the geese.
It is true that Lowell thought Bishop to be "the best," but here one sees that Valentine is the best, not only to the lover-dreamer. Her diction is ever tactful, and her perfect landings after a free-associative swing, "consciousness of this big form," enable the release of unconscious mind out of its hiding place into conscious light:
The sound of their wings!
Oars rowing laborious, wood against wood: it was
a continuing thought, no, it was a labor,
how to accept your lover's love. Who could do it alone?
Under our radiant sleep they were bearing us all night long.
The wild goose is the Chinese poet's symbol for freedom. While Valentine's expressive powers have always been rare and great, now added to them are exuberance and the creative freedom to fly even higher.
Both creative ascent and descent into the depths of life's mysteriousness mark Growing Darkness, Growing Light (1997). Here Valentine reverts to and expands her earlier thematics on dreams. A dream, as a Native American epigraph explains, opens up the transitional space between the rationality of daylight and the darkly irrational unconscious as well as the moment of death, in which the mind breaks into dissociative fragments. The poet's compassion and desire confront the dissolution of the self as she meditates on the afflicted "soul," a frequently repeated term. AIDS, cancer, Ireland's bloody politics, and the deaths of poet-friends are seen through the dream lens that both heightens felt pain and makes it bearable through energized language. Death is the "deep black unfold," as unknowable to us as to the unconscious patient in an intensive care unit.
A sense of meaning's elusiveness and the struggle with death expressed in dream language also suffuses Valentine's 2000 collection, The Cradle of the Real Life. Each of these lyrics, often quite short, elliptically sketches a fragment of a mythic scene or a cri de coeur, like a single Matissean brushstroke. The worst horrors—bereavements, separations, orphans abused, the pain of those dying, the nightmare lives of women in bad marriages, prison, or the madhouse—are veiled, unspoken as if unspeakable, left for the reader to imagine. A heart subdued by suffering and loss shows through the lines.
The theologian Martin Buber's concept of "Thou" is cited in the epigraph as the "cradle of the Real Life." For Valentine "Thou" suggests not so much God as the "Other" that might be a lover, force, power, divinity, or life itself beyond individual consciousness. The world now appears wintry and uncertain to the poet. She is constrained yet moved by beauty and sadness in an almost oriental contemplativeness. A final haiku-like poem reads:
off the Atlantic
out toward strangeness
a breath on a coal
The absence of verbs and cohesive syntax seems to signal the impossibility of defining the real or of taking any kind of gross action. Affirmation remains, however. The "you" or "Thou" allied with the energy of Logos, the divine creative Word, becomes living and personal, sending out poetic sparks in the face of oblivion.