Jean Valentine's "Seeing You" was first published in the 1990 January/February issue of American Poetry Review. Subsequently, the poem was included in Valentine's 1992 collection of poetry called The River at Wolf and then republished in the collection Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965–2003 (2004).
Valentine often writes about her mother and her lovers. "Seeing You" combines these two subjects in an effort to show that the experience of getting to know one's mother and the intimacy of that relationship are similar to the experience of one's relationship with a lover. In particular, revelations of understanding—of truly "seeing" the mother or lover physically and emotionally—are much the same astounding turning points in life.
Valentine discusses in this poem a child's dependency on its mother for life and nurture as well as the realization that, despite her love, the mother has fears arising from the challenges of parenting. The resulting appreciation of the commitment of the mother deepens the relationship and brings joy to the child. There is also joy in falling in love, in getting to know another person who is absolutely a glorious wonder. As Valentine expresses in "Seeing You," when one is in love, one wants to know everything there is to know about the other person, and so the impulse is to plunge into getting to know the beloved, much as one plunges into a lake and is immersed. The revelations are many, including the experience of ultimate intimacy, of seeing each other unclothed, literally and emotionally. "Seeing You" is a poem about that moment of revelation and realization that brings tremendous growth and happiness in a loving relationship.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 27, 1934, to Jean Purcell and John W. Valentine, Jean Valentine went to Milton Academy from 1949 to 1952 and then received a bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College (of Harvard University) in 1956. Valentine has lived most of her life in New York City, teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, the Graduate Writing Program of New York University, Columbia University, and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. She has also taught many poetry workshops at various universities. Valentine married James Chace in 1957. They had two daughters, Sarah and Rebecca, but were divorced in 1968. For nearly eight years, from 1989 to 1996, Valentine lived in Ireland with Barrie Cooke, an English painter, but returned to the United States when that relationship dissolved. Some of her poetry, however, reflects her time in Ireland.
There was also a period from 1982 to 1987 when Valentine did not write at all because of alcoholism. She had stopped drinking at age forty-seven in 1981, but she suffered so much from the trauma of withdrawal that she could not write. She entered a recovery program in 1985 and eventually found that writing again helped her to regain her life. A Catholic convert, Valentine also made progress in her recovery through the effects of her volunteer work for her church during that time. Her religious affiliation is on again, off again, however. Valentine is also attracted to Buddhism.
Valentine's poetry has evolved through slightly different themes and techniques over the years, but she is best known for a dreamlike quality in poems that describe real life with passionate and intimate images. This combination of the invisible and the visible, the personal yet secretive, often makes her poetry difficult to understand. Consequently, her audience, which includes many contemporary poets, is small but astute in its appreciation of her use of language and syntax, which allows her narrator to pass from one image to another as if in a dream.
"Seeing You" is a poem that Valentine originally published in American Poetry Review in early 1990 and then in her collection of poetry called The River at Wolf in 1992. This poem appears again in the collection that won the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry, Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965–2003, a volume that contains all her poetry from other books as well as seventy previously unpublished poems. Among Valentine's awards are the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1965 for her first book, Dream Barker and Other Poems, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1972), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1976), and awards from the Bunting Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Teasdale Poetry Prize, and the Poetry Society of America's Shelley Memorial Award (2000). Her other books include Pilgrims (1969), Ordinary Things (1974), The Messenger (1979), Home Deep Blue: New and Selected Poems (1989), The Under Voice: Selected Poems (1995), Growing Darkness, Growing Light (1997), The Cradle of the Real Life (2000), and The Lighthouse Keeper: Essays on the Poetry of Eleanor Ross Taylor (2001).
I was born under the mudbank
and you gave me your boat.
For a long time
I made my home in your hand:
your hand was empty, it was made
of four stars, like a kite; 5
you were afraid, afraid, afraid, afraid,
I licked it from your finger-spaces
and wanted to die.
Out of the river sparks rose up: 10
I could see you, your fear and your love.
I could see you, brilliance magnified.
That was the original garden:
Your hand was empty, it was made 15
of four stars, like a kite;
blessed I stood my fingers
in your blue finger-space, my eyes' light in
your eyes' light,
we drank each other in. 20
I dove down my mental lake fear and love:
first fear then under it love:
I could see you,
Brilliance, at the bottom. Trust you
stillness in the last red inside place. 25
Then past the middle of the earth it got light again.
Your tree. Its heavy green sway. The bright male city.
Oh that was the garden of abundance, seeing you.
In this first section of the two-section poem, the narrator, "I," describes being born as coming out from under a mudbank and being given a boat. The care provided by the mother is compared to being given a home in the mother's hand, but the hand is empty. Perhaps the hand is empty because, ultimately, all a parent can do is give a child life; after that, even with the parent's guiding hand, the child is on its own to make something of that life. The idea behind the further description of the hand as being made of four stars, like a kite, is perhaps that of the future. A child has its mother's protection when held in her hand, but that safe place cannot last forever. The child must fly out of the nest of its mother's hand, perhaps clinging to a kite, but the future could be as bright as the four stars that give structure to the kite.
The narrator's tone throughout the poem is one of wonder and awe. By the fourth stanza, the child can sense the mother's fears and trepidations as palpably as the child is able to lick the fear from between the fingers of the mother's cradling hand. The fear is everywhere. This fear is enough to frighten the child into wanting to die, but the mother's role is to encourage and inspire, so sparks arise out of the river, symbolizing the mother, upon which the child's boat has been afloat. These sparks reflect the brilliance of the mother's love as well as her fear, but with her love dominating, and the child is able to truly see the mother in this light.
- A thirty-minute VHS video is available from the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at www.sfsu.edu, showing Valentine reading her poetry at San Francisco State University on November 29, 1979.
- A thirty-one-minute VHS video is available from the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at www.sfsu.edu, showing Valentine reading from Home Deep Blue and Growing Darkness, Growing Light at San Francisco State University on October 15, 1997.
- A 1989 audiotape of The Resurrected, produced by Watershed, is available from the Writer's Center of Bethesda, Maryland, at www.writer.org/index.asp.
- A number of Valentine's poems are available in audio form on her official website: www.jeanvalentine.com.
The second part of "Seeing You" starts by repeating the third stanza from the first part of the poem, about the mother. The two parts are linked through similar descriptions of the mother and the lover. The lover's hand, like the mother's, will also be empty at first, but there is a future in what the relationship will bring. The narrator feels blessed to have found love. This time, instead of seeing the emotion in the finger spaces, the narrator shares emotion by intertwining fingers with the lover. The child looks at the mother as the authority figure, but the narrator and the lover look at each other, drinking each other in, as they try to learn as much as they can about each other.
The narrator continues the imagery of water by comparing the experience of immersing oneself in the lover to that of diving into a lake. The mother was a river, but the lover is a lake, and there are the same emotions of fear and love. Once again, the narrator notices the fear first, the fear of what the future holds with this person, the fear of losing identity when giving so much of oneself to another, the fear of all the changes and new experiences that come with a romantic relationship. However, once again, the narrator gets past the fear to find the love. The brilliance here is not seen as sparks rising from the river but is seen instead at the bottom of the lake. Emerging from the plunge into the soul of the lover, the narrator finds an illuminating light. With this light, the narrator is able to see the lover, in all his maleness, and the new world of experience that being with him will bring. His garden is one of abundance, with many fruits to taste.
"Seeing You" is about repeated patterns in relationships. In particular, Valentine wants to suggest that what is learned from one's first teachers, one's parents, is something one will learn again with a lover. Often in her poetry, Valentine seems to evaluate her romantic loves according to the standard of maternal love. Correspondingly, she finds similarities between the way she feels about a lover and the way she feels about her mother. Will one find subsequent gardens to be the same as the "original garden," or will there be different landscaping? Will other gardens be as akin to Eden as was the garden of her mother? Will the feeling of coming out of her mother's mudbank be the same as emerging from the lake of her lover? Valentine's narrator is seeking reassurance that her man's love will be as caring as her mother's love at the same time that she is reveling in the added dimensions of the new experience. There are also questions about dependency and independence. A child is dependent on its mother but must eventually strike out on his or her own. In a romantic relationship, there is an emotional dependence that must be balanced with staying true to oneself.
To symbolize these relationship patterns, Valentine creates patterns in the words and structure of the poem. There is, of course, significance in the words that are chosen for repetition: fear, love, brilliance, and gardens. Perhaps they are the four stars. They definitely form the skeleton upon which the poem is fleshed out. Repetition also occurs in the whole structure of the poem. Each verse is only two lines. Stanza 3 of the first part is repeated as stanza 1 of the second part. The two subjects, the mother and the lover, are each described with water imagery, with the mother as a river and the lover as a lake. With each person, there is a garden and a moment of revelation when the narrator feels that she is finally really "seeing" the other person in the sense of understanding the other.
Fear and Love
Fear and love are not separate themes in "Seeing You." The theme is the relationship of fear and love. Valentine first homes in on the fears that the mother has, the kind of fears that every mother has about the challenges of child rearing. Across her works, one of Valentine's themes is departure, but usually in the negative sense of divorce or death. In "Seeing You," the departure of the child from the mother's womb is a natural occurrence, although it is a fearful experience for the mother, who suffers great pain in childbirth, and a fearful experience for the child, who must leave the protective, cozy atmosphere of the womb for the cold, cruel world. Mother and child fear separation, psychological as well as physical, throughout their lifetimes but also fear the loss of individual identity. The child must develop an identity of his or her own, and the mother must maintain her own identity as a person other than just "Mom." For the mother, this identity struggle is one of the fears that comes from the enormous responsibility of parenting. However, uppermost are the concerns about caring for the child, providing food, clothing, shelter, a good education, a good example, a healthy environment, and so on. Valentine, the mother of two, emphasizes the extent of a mother's fear by repeating the word "afraid" four times. These anxieties can be relayed to a sensitive child, who may respond with such distress that she "want[s] to die." Perhaps the child feels that her death will relieve the mother of her burden. However, "out of the river" of the mother, "sparks rose up" to give the child encouragement and confirm that love will conquer the fears. The darkness of fear is contrasted to the "brilliance" of the light from the mother's love.
With regard to the lover, fear comes first as the narrator plunges into the relationship, but then, under the fear, the narrator reaches love. The message is that one has to get past one's fears to be able to find love. The fear starts with the awkwardness of a first date and leads to many questions: Will he like me? Will he break my heart? Will this last forever? Taking the first steps into a romantic relationship is quite frightening when one does not know where it will all end or what one will find out about the other. The narrator dives to the very core of the other person, as if going down to the core of the earth. At the bottom is the brilliance, the light of the true self of the lover, and there is then the trust that is essential to the success of the relationship. Once this epiphany of love and trust has occurred, the narrator can commit completely to her lover, physically and emotionally.
Topics For Further Study
- Valentine considers her fellow poets Fanny Howe, Jane Cooper, Sharon Olds, C. D. Wright, and Adrienne Rich to be her friends and models. Write a brief biography for each of these American women, including a capsule description of her work. Summarize your research with a comparison of these poets.
- Valentine's Door in the Mountain is a collection of all of her previous publications as well as several new poems. Investigate this practice of reprinting previously published works that is so common among poets. Why are previous collections "recycled"? Write a report on the answer, which should be an insight into the publishing industry and the reading public. Information relating to this topic may be found in the introductions to the collections of various poets.
- Valentine has spent most of her life as a college professor. Check on the professions of a number of other famous modern writers in the fields of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and list them. Are most or many involved in teaching? If so, conduct a discussion with a group of your classmates about why you think that is or is not the case.
- "Seeing You" is a poem that describes the poet's mother as being afraid. Why do you think she is afraid? What are the fears that all mothers (and fathers) share? Write a composition on this subject, perhaps interviewing various parents about their challenges and feelings.
- Valentine has spent most of her life in the New York City area, which is the publishing center of the United States. Investigate the publishing industry, including publishing houses, agents, and authors. List some of the major publishing houses located in New York City and comment in a group discussion on why you think so many are in New York City or close to each other.
- Valentine is often compared to Emily Dickinson and Louise Bogan. Choose one of these two poets and then write a paragraph identifying her followed by a paragraph comparing her work to that of Valentine.
Free Verse and Repetition
Using short, usually irregular line lengths and a controlled rhythm, free verse lacks the regular stress pattern, metric feet, and rhyme of traditional verse. Instead of a recurrent beat, the rhythmic effect depends on repetition, balance, and variation of phrases. A poet using free verse may suspend ordinary syntax and increase the control of pace, pauses, and timing. Poets noted for their use of free verse are Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and e. e. cummings, among many others. In "Seeing You," Valentine uses irregular line lengths and a controlled rhythm, sometimes unexpectedly stopping the reader once or twice in a line ("Brilliance, at the bottom. Trust you"), while at other times racing through a line, omitting punctuation in places where prose would demand punctuation ("I dove down my mental lake fear and love"). Repetition is the most obvious tool, with stanza 3 of the first section being identical to stanza 1 of the second; the repetition of the phrases "finger-spaces" and "seeing you"; and the repetition of the words "brilliance," "garden," "fear," and "love." In addition, the first part, "Mother," has seven two-line stanzas, and the second, "Lover," has seven two-line stanzas.
The major feature of Valentine's poetry is imagery, vividly yet simply presented in a moment of intensity. In the first line, "mudbank," a bank of mud that is fully or partially submerged along a river, is the image Valentine uses to represent her mother's womb. Many of Valentine's poems are about her mother, and she often uses womb imagery to associate with the maternal.
In stanza 4 of the second half of the poem, the image of her mind as a "mental lake," into which she can dive and swim through the emotions of fear and love, is striking. She carries the image to the bottom of the lake, which is so deep that it goes all the way to the middle of the earth, where she passes through to the other side of the world. Valentine loves movies that are dreamlike and heavy with symbolism, and this admiration is reflected in her poetic style. According to Valentine, in an interview with Michael Klein, diving down through the lake is an image that comes from a scene in the 1988 movie The Navigator, in which the main character goes down through the earth and comes out in Auckland, New Zealand.
Poetic imagery, as descriptive language, normally appeals to multiple senses. In "Seeing You," however, the appeal is to only one sense, that of sight, in keeping with the title of the poem. All the images are things the reader sees with the mind's eye: a mudbank, a boat, a hand, stars, a kite, fingers, a river, sparks, eyes, a lake, and the colors blue, red, and green. The colors appear only in the second stanza, perhaps signifying how a person grows and blossoms when in love and experiencing new dimensions in life.
Poetic imagery, as figurative language, often uses metaphors to stand for the actual object. In the final stanza of "Seeing You," Valentine avoids a graphic description of her lover's private parts by calling his genitalia "Your tree." She extends the metaphor to describe the "heavy green sway" of the tree. She then offers a new metaphor for the same thing by equating the genitalia to a "bright male city." Seeing her mother for who she really is, with all her fears and love, equates with the "original garden." Seeing her lover in a sexual context becomes a "garden of abundance," perhaps signifying the physical and emotional sensations of love that he will bring to her.
Fragments and Caesuras
In an interview with Richard Jackson, Valentine was asked about the fragments upon which her poetry seems to be based. She replied: "These 'fragments' … are very often what I sense and feel; they are how I 'get' this time and place and the currents of my private and public life and the lives around me." She compares these fragments to newspaper clippings or scenes from a movie. In other words, she uses the fragments like pictures in her mind, flashing images that she grabs and puts together to communicate a whole idea.
Free verse varies line length to control the flow of the thought and emphasize meaning. In "Seeing You," few stanzas have lines of equal length, and thoughts are broken between stanzas. Within the lines as well, Valentine may use one or two caesuras, or strong pauses, to break up the thought into fragments or slow down the reading. Caesuras are used to emphasize meaning, such as strong contrasts or close relationships between ideas. For example, a comma is placed between "four stars" and "like a kite," which might get the reader to place the image of the four stars firmly in the mind before going on to connect those four stars into a kite shape. Furthermore, there is a difference of emphasis and meaning between "I could see your brilliance magnified" and what Valentine wrote, "I could see you, brilliance magnified." Valentine's way makes the brilliance more outstanding and equates brilliance with the mother as if it were her whole being and not just a quality she possesses. Valentine's caesuras, therefore, are a result of the fragmented nature of her imagination.
Feminist poetry is not the same thing as poetry written by women. Women often write poetry in traditional and formulaic ways. However, a distinctive kind of poetry is feminist poetry, born out of the women's movement in the 1970s and coming to maturity in the following decade, 1980–1990. Feminist poetry bears a resemblance to the antiwar poetry and some of the beat poetry of the 1960s in its consciousness-raising and political goals. What distinguishes feminist poetry is its experimentation with the function of language in poetry and its themes and imagery based on the unique experiences of women. These two characteristics are evident in "Seeing You," when Valentine employs free verse, with her trademark fragments, combined with the imagery of a woman's relationship with her mother and her lover.
Compare & Contrast
- 1990: As their children's protectors and teachers, parents are encouraged to focus on building their children's self-esteem. Parents are challenged to teach their children how to handle such modern issues as body image, drug and alcohol abuse, peer pressure, crime, and rapidly changing technology. Many parents regard the world as an unfriendly place for their children, and they struggle with fear for them. Friends are often a stronger influence over children than their parents are.
Today: Parents are still encouraged to build their children's self-esteem, but new challenges make this task increasingly difficult. Violence among children is on the rise, and the consequences are more serious than ever. Technology can represent as much danger as benefit to children, and parents must be vigilant in monitoring Internet and cell-phone activity. Childhood obesity and eating disorders pose unique early challenges to self-esteem. Friends continue to be extremely influential in children's lives, forcing mothers and fathers to work harder to be effective in their parenting. As the issues facing children become more difficult and more serious, parents often find themselves fearful as they strive to protect their children.
- 1990: Most of the well-known women literary writers are novelists, such as Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, and Margaret Atwood. The poetry of such popular writers as Maya Angelou is gaining widespread exposure. A woman has not won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1966 (Nelly Sachs) but has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry as recently as 1987 (Rita Dove).
Today: Most of the popular women writers are still novelists, many of whom have proved their staying power. Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, and Margaret Atwood continue to enjoy a large readership, as do newer writers, such as Anita Shreve. Women are capturing more elite literary awards. Four women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the past fifteen years (Nadine Gortimer, Toni Morrison, Wislawa Szymborska, and Elfriede Jelinek) and four have earned the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (Mona Van Duyn, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and Lisel Mueller).
- 1990: American poetry is generally personal in nature. Poets tend to use poetry to express political opinions (especially at poetry slams, where poets perform their work before audiences in competition) or as a way to relate their personal experiences. Some scholars have reached the conclusion that American poetry has become too academic and is written more for a small segment of the publishing industry than for the general public. Despite these claims that poetry is marginalized among American readers, creative writing programs and workshops have become increasingly popular and well attended.
Today: American poetry is still characterized by personal expression. Many poets still use poetry as a way to express opinions about politics and social issues. Poetry slams have declined in popularity, although organized slams are still held all over the country. The public's interest in poetry continues to decline; in 2002, only 12 percent of American adults read poetry. This figure is almost one-fourth of the number of people who read novels and short fiction.
Furthermore, feminist poetry has both subjective and collective stories to tell. While the poem may be or seem to be about the poet's private life, it is at the same time intended to express the experiences of many women. The worldview is no longer strictly male but has a female perspective. Valentine, as a rule, does not use herself literally; her narrator is not necessarily herself but one who is meant to draw upon the personal feelings and experiences of the reader. Thus, the poetry remains personal in its ability to capture each reader's intimate thoughts and portray universal experiences. This revealing of the personal and intimate has upset many mainstream American poets and critics, who find such revelations embarrassing and inappropriate. The American Academy of Poets gave its prestigious Lamont Prize in 1990 to Minnie Bruce Pratt, known for her explicitly personal poetry, yet reportedly there was some uneasiness with her work. Thus, feminist poetry has remained somewhat outside the American poetry establishment while nonetheless garnering a supportive audience among readers and critics.
Exceptions to the separation of feminist poetry and the mainstream have been the careers of Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath, perhaps because of the impact of their outspoken literary criticism. Rich is one of Valentine's closest friends and influences, and Valentine's work has been compared to Plath's. It could be said that feminist poetry runs alongside the mainstream in that it has been stripping language and form to its rawest elements to express the previously hidden and secret lives of women, including their views on sexuality, since the 1970s. In various interviews, Valentine has indicated that she wants to get past the secrets and the myths to the truths of women's lives. She achieves this goal in the sexual intimacy, the fears, and the emotions of loves that she describes in "Seeing You." Another theme that recurs in interviews with Valentine is her admiration of women political poets and their efforts to speak out on issues that matter. As long as there is oppression based on gender and an elitism in poetry that prefers personal and political detachment, there will be a place for feminist poets such as Valentine.
Because "Seeing You" has been published twice in book-length collections by Valentine, it is appropriate to look at the critical reaction to both books. The River at Wolf was called "daring" in the Virginia Quarterly Review, which goes on to state that the poems "succeed by not giving in to melodrama or sentimentality; they focus on details of great clarity." The reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review adds that many of the poems, such as "Seeing You," "repeat lines, with a resonant echoing effect," observing that "occasionally the repetition drowns out the poem, and sometimes the resistance to the maudlin is so great that the narration sounds harsh." The poet David Rivard, in a critique of The River at Wolf for Ploughshares, says that Valentine "faces head-on the most serious mysteries of desire and death." Rivard describes the poems in this volume as "intense, calligraphic lyricism," "epics of the inner life," and "militantly non-narrative."
The awarding of the National Book Award to Valentine for Door in the Mountain was for many readers, among them Barbara Hoffert writing for the Library Journal, an affirmation that Valentine is "one of the best [poets] at work in America today." Hoffert finds Valentine's work "beautifully precise—as in music, there's as much here in the silence as there is in the sound—and radiant with the pain of being in the world." The critic John Freeman, in the Seattle Times, writes that Valentine displays "a sensibility unlike any other in American letters" and that her style "gives the reader a chance to indulge a heightened awareness in the natural world, the passage of time and the aural quality of language."
In general, critics praise Valentine for a unique talent, although some complain that her dreamlike images wander into the inexplicable. Nonetheless, the number of her awards, the admiration of fellow poets, and the longevity of her career testify to the quality of her poetry and the value to be found in studying it.
Lois Kerschen is a school district administrator and freelance writer. In this essay, she discusses understanding a Valentine poem through a knowledge of her methods and influences.
Poetry is often a part of English class that students dread, because they do not have a clue about how to read a poem or what it means. For the general reading public, the problem is much the same. Learning the elements of poetry and having an ear for the sounds of language that are so important to the genre will help a reader understand a poem. It also helps to know something about the poet, influences on the poet, and the characteristic style of the poet. Certainly, in the case of poetry by Valentine, it is useful to understand something about her mental process and intentions as she writes. Interviews with Valentine herself and analysis by experts who know her work provide this information.
Readers might be in the best position to understand a Valentine poem if they bring to mind how they feel during a dream or when just waking from a dream. It is from this viewpoint of dream logic that a Valentine poem makes the most sense. "Seeing You" first appeared in the collection The River at Wolf, published in 1992. In an article for Poetry magazine that reviewed that book, Steven Cramer comments: "A poem by Jean Valentine travels in two directions—inward toward the recesses of self and outward toward the reaches of otherness—via a single route: the dream." For Valentine, Cramer surmises, dreams provide not only insight but also revelation. Indeed, in an interview with Michael Klein in 1991, the year after the first publication of "Seeing You" in the American Poetry Review, Valentine says, "I feel more and more as if my poems are almost all from dreams, or written as if from dreams." She adds that the way "another poet might write from an outward experience is the same way that I would write from a dream."
In a review of Door in the Mountain (2004), which also contains "Seeing You," the poet and Rutgers University professor Alicia Ostriker, writing for American Book Review, describes Valentine's dream poems as "poems of profound imagination, delicate and sensual, fearless and magical," much like those of John Keats and Wallace Stevens. Ostriker quotes Valentine's fellow poet and close friend Adrienne Rich as saying that delving into a Valentine poem:
is like looking into a lake: you can see your own outline, and the shapes of the upper world, reflected among rocks, underwater life, glint of lost bottles, drifted leaves. The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet…. It lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn't approach in any other way.
This description from Rich is especially helpful when reading "Seeing You," since this poem actually uses the imagery not only of looking into a lake but also of diving into one's mental lake of fear and love and finding brilliance at the bottom. To use Rich's description, the known and familiar emotions of fear and love become one with the mysterious brilliance at the bottom. The conscious and subliminal, or what is below consciousness, meet in the person of the lover. This meeting of two parts of the mind defies "rationality in ways that help us break through to another dimension of the real," concludes Ostriker.
The critic Carol Muske, writing in the Nation, feels that readers should recognize this new dimension from their own dreams as one in which "there are no unessential details—everything is given equal moral and aesthetic weight." Cramer adds that Valentine's "compact lyrics inhabit the thought of the unconscious … hard-edged in detail but elusive in total effect … as if the poet were simply taking notes." Ostriker agrees when she notes that Valentine writes with "an impulse toward the ardently and intensely chaste," in an austere and cryptic style in which "poems strike like the arrows of a Zen archer." H. Susskind, writing for Choice, says that Valentine's bone-sharp accuracy of detail is often combined with the personal. This combination results in "images enough to conjure up like memories for her readers," because, though her message may be elusive, her images are down to earth. That is the effect that Valentine herself says she seeks. In an interview with Richard Jackson for Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, she says that the voices or narrators are not autobiographical. Rather, she is "trying to move into an other, into others; to move out of the private self into an imagination of everyone's history, into the public world." To Klein, she says that "our dreams are universal; our emotional and spiritual life is universal. Because of that, it's just as much a communication, from one person to another, as if you were describing a landscape."
Susskind notes in his review of The River at Wolf that Valentine's "skill is in the manner in which she touches on passion without giving everything away." Klein, too, makes note of this element and tells Valentine in his interview with her that what makes her poems so luminous to him is that he does not "miss not having the whole story." He appreciates that the sparseness of her language creates poems of "essences" that give the reader the sense that nothing is missing from them, because the essence becomes the reader's own history. The process allows the reader to live his or her own life subconsciously in the poem. The idea is that the essence draws out the reader's personal history, communicates a connection to the world as a whole, and results in an examination of the reader's subconscious.
Since she is working with the unconscious or subconscious, Valentine says that she often writes poems that she herself does not understand, so she has to rely on the sound of the language to judge the success of the poem. If she thinks it sounds good, it does not matter to her that she does not understand it. However, if her friends do not understand it either, to the point of not liking it, she reworks the poem or discards it. If her friends do not understand it but like it anyway, then she trusts that she has written a poem of value, something deep and alive, like the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop, whose poetry Valentine admires because it makes her feel as if she could always go deeper.
What Do I Read Next?
- At the age of seventy-five, Jane Cooper, who befriended Valentine when her first book came out, published The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed (2000), a complete collection of her work, which is known mostly for its insightful and compassionate political views.
- Valentine is an admirer of Fanny Howe, whose On the Ground: Poems (2004) is a set of short sequences that reflect her intense interest in politics and social justice and express her belief that love can light the way.
- Sharon Olds, whose collection of her best poems from seven other books was published in 2004 as Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980–2002, is another poet whom Valentine admires. Olds has a style that connects immediately with audiences, making her one of the most widely read of modern poets.
- Adrienne Rich, who is an icon of feminist poets and a close friend of Valentine's, coedited Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose (1993) with Albert and Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi.
- Showing a style akin to Emily Dickinson's, Valentine's Home Deep Blue: New and Selected Poems (1989) is a collection of lyrical verse that displays her strength in the use of language and sound.
- Valentine's eighth book, The Cradle of the Real Life (2000), has a long sequence merging Irish and feminist themes as well as poems of Valentine's usual trademark brevity.
- Valentine enjoys reading the poetry of the southern-born poet C. D. Wright, whose tenth book, Steal Away: Selected and New Poems (2003), exhibits enticing and diverse multicultural subjects and experimental forms.
- The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (2001), edited by Susan Alzenberg, Erin Belieu, and Jeremy Countryman, is an anthology of 400 poems by 118 female American poets, including 7 by Valentine.
All of this complexity can make a poem quite mysterious. However, Valentine has no objection to mystery. In fact, Klein asks Valentine in his interview, "How much do you feel you have to give readers in order for them to understand what you are saying?" She replies, "I think I do everything I can to be understood but after a point there's nothing more I can do." Rather than lose the poetic qualities of the work, Valentine says she "would hold out for mystery…. I don't have any liking at all for obscurity, but I do love mystery."
Muske thinks that Valentine manages to communicate in what appears to be an overly cryptic and mysterious style because "her mastery of the form, the deep image" enables the words to expand and become rich with meaning. It is, therefore, a style that requires being able to read between the lines, where so much seems to be stored. Valentine writes about the invisible, so the white spaces signify the unspoken and the unseen. Lee Upton, in The Muse of Abandonment, interprets Valentine's white spaces as creating "tenuous psychological states" through the appearance of the poem floating in the white spaces "as if about to be lifted from the page … lightening and diffusing her sense of corporeality, rendering an ethereal poetry that revolts against the materiality of the body and the text and their combined gravity."
This ethereal nature may be attributed to the influence of the spiritual in Valentine's life and beliefs. A religious person, Valentine devotes time to prayer and meditation. Naturally, then, there is a sense in her poetry of a curiosity about God and another world. In her interview with Michael Klein, she says, "I feel that all poetry is prayer, it's just as simple as that. Who else would we be talking to?" Valentine adds later in the interview that "the cry of the heart of modern poetry, for the most part, is more like prayer." Perhaps that is because Valentine sees prose as where one learns history, that is to say, the what and how of life, while poetry, she thinks, tries to give meaning to life. This element of the spiritual relates to the dreams that influence her poetry in that they are both dimensions which are not rational. Both work with the unseen but emotionally undeniable.
The advice students do not want to hear is that the best way to understand poetry is to read lots of poetry. When trying to understand the works of one poet in particular, such as Valentine, it is valuable to read a number of her works. How else could one know if a particular poem, "Seeing You," for instance, is a continuation of typical themes for Valentine or is a departure into a new message or structure? It is also very helpful to read other poets who have influenced her writing or to whose work her own works are similar.
Valentine is often compared to Louise Bogan, an American poet who is considered one of the best critics of poetry in the mid-twentieth century. Bogan's lyrics are also brief and limited mostly to two themes for which Valentine is noted: love and grief. Bogan's two favorite poets are also favorites of Valentine's: William Butler Yeats of Ireland and Rainer Maria Rilke of Germany. Yeats is also skilled at finding imagery that would fix a moment of experience in the memory, and Valentine's works are quite similar to Rilke's, in that his poetry also conveys a sense of something hidden and beyond, of a reality that escapes us just as it is grasped at, of mystery and the mystical.
Valentine is called a poet's poet. That is a title that is also given to Bogan and to Elizabeth Bishop, with whom Valentine identifies closely. Bishop, too, has a talent for small poetic structures and descriptive detail, using sharp-edged language and images that are precise and true to life. The same could be said of Emily Dickinson, who quickly comes to mind when reading Valentine. In fact, Valentine has said that Dickinson is in her blood. Consequently, when studying a particular poem, reading more poetry by the same author and by others opens up the mind and adds colors to the literary palette to a point that not only makes interpretation easier but also makes poetry more enjoyable. It is an investment of time that will pay dividends in the delight that language can bring and the tremendous breadth of the world that poetic expression opens.
Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on "Seeing You," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Jennifer Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature and is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explores water imagery in "Seeing You."
Valentine's use of water imagery in "Seeing You" provides continuity and meaning to the poet's reflections on love. With water imagery, she taps into a tradition that has been sustained throughout literature. As far back as Homer's Odyssey, readers find water as symbolic of movement, possibility, danger, and journeying. Mark Twain used the river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to stand for the journey of life, where one encounters things that can be controlled and others that cannot. The deep, mysterious ocean in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick represents danger, fate, and the unknown. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, water imagery symbolizes continuity and calm in contrast to the chaos and superficiality of the lives of his characters. These are just a few well-known examples of water imagery, but the incidence of its use throughout world literature attests to its rich symbolic possibilities. The analytical psychologist Carl Jung also recognized the importance of water imagery and employed it to symbolize the unconscious, both personal and collective. Jung saw water as representative of the life cycle.
In this highly visual poem, Valentine incorporates numerous layers of literary symbolism and psychological exploration in her use of water imagery. In the first section of the poem, the speaker addresses her mother and comments on the love they shared. She writes that she was "born under the mudbank," which describes a place that contains water but is only in proximity to an entire body of water. It is murky and a bit shapeless. It actually represents a mix of earth and water. These are the conditions in which the speaker entered the world, and the reader recognizes the presence of water as an element not yet defined. Readers may also note that water is often associated with the womb and birth, so this seems a fitting introduction to Valentine's poem. In the second line, the speaker recalls to her mother, "you gave me your boat." Her mother gave her the ability to go forth into the water safely and navigate it. Here, Valentine uses the water to symbolize life experiences and venturing into the world. It also points to the mother's sacrifice. That the mother made the speaker feel safe is expressed in line 4: "I made my home in your hand."
Valentine first introduces the idea of water as only one of four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. Many writers and thinkers also characterize air as wind or sky. The idea of the four elements was first held by the ancient Greeks but continues to be held by modern thinkers. In line 6, the speaker says that her mother's hand is made of "four stars, like a kite." These two references are to the air (or sky) and bring in a sense of contrast to the water. The speaker's emotional maturity and gradual loss of innocence are expressed in line 7, when the speaker recalls that her mother was "afraid, afraid, afraid, afraid" and that she tried to give her mother some temporary comfort from the fear. The two are taking care of each other against a background of fear; first, the mother gave her daughter the boat to make her feel safe in the water, and then the daughter tries to remove the mother's relentless fear. Another element arrives in line 10: "Out of the river sparks rose up." Fire imagery provides contrast in the form of an unexpected burst of sparks from the water, signaling change.
The next two lines describe the mother's reaction to the change. She has both fear and love, and the speaker recalls seeing her "brilliance magnified." This is a subtle reinforcement of the importance of water in the mother-daughter relationship. The speaker sees her mother's brilliance magnified, as if in a drop of water or as a reflection of bright light on still water. The section ends with the speaker telling her mother that seeing her was the "original garden," her first experience of a love relationship.
The second section deals with a romantic love, and the speaker addresses a lover. Like the mother, the lover has an empty hand made of "four stars, like a kite." This repeated imagery relates the two loves in the speaker's mind. She sees something familiar in the lover that she recalls from her mother, and it makes her feel comfortable enough to go forward with the relationship. It also reinforces the use of the air element as a balance to the recurring water imagery. But here the empty hand does not symbolize fear and neediness. The lover's empty hand is a place where the speaker can simply stand and feel blessed and enjoy gazing into her lover's eyes. Where her mother kept fear in her "finger-spaces," the lover has blue, the color of water, in his. Water in this poem represents love, possibility, and growth; Valentine invokes water imagery surrounding the empty hand of the lover to create a thematically consistent picture. Blue is also the color of the sky, which has been present in both the mother's and the lover's hands. When she says, "my eyes' light in / your eyes' light" (lines 18 and 19), the speaker is expressing her sense of love and her belonging in the "blue finger-spaces" (line 18). Line 20 takes the significance of water a step further: "we drank each other in." Valentine uses the fact that water is quenching and life-sustaining to illustrate the mutual love the speaker shares with her lover.
The speaker symbolically abandons the boat her mother gave her when she decides, in line 21, to immerse herself fully in the water and seek its depths. She writes, "I dove down my mental lake fear and love: / first fear then under it love." Feeling safe and fulfilled by romantic love, she finds herself anxious to see what is at the bottom of her lake. She is not just curious; she also feels empowered and capable of asserting her will to see what her mental lake holds. The lake is herself, her abilities, and her purpose. Although she first encounters fear (which is not at all surprising, given what she described in the first section), she faces the fear to see what is past it. There she finds love. Valentine suggests that fear is motivated by love. A mother's fear for her children is generally driven by her love for them and desire for them to be happy and safe. In romantic love, people are often fearful of having their hearts broken. When the speaker discovers this fear within herself, she is really discovering something about human nature in general.
The speaker's decision to dive into the water is rewarded when she finds her lover at the bottom of her lake. The unknown has become known, and it is safe and trustworthy. She depicts her lover as "brilliance" (line 24), just as she had described her mother. Having experienced her journey through the water, she can trust her lover. In line 26, Valentine brings back the earth element: "Then past the middle of the earth it got light again." This is the first time in the poem she refers to earth as its own element; early in the poem she referred to the mudbank of her birth, but the mud was a blend of water and earth. In line 26, late in the poem, earth is an element unto itself. She has gone past the water in her journey and into the earth, seemingly without fear, and she finds light at the end of the journey. She has embraced herself and love, and her courage has been rewarded with peace and security. The poem ends with her characterizing her lover as "the garden of abundance" (line 28). Where her mother was the "original garden," the first love, the lover is abundant love.
In drenching "Seeing You" in water imagery, Valentine joins a rich literary tradition that reaches back to the beginnings of literary expression. Water is such an integral part of the human experience that it is readily understood and valued by readers. Valentine uses water to represent possibility, reflection, commonality, uncertainty, and movement. She also uses water to demonstrate the contrasts of life and death, peace and turmoil. By combining the universality of water imagery with the universal themes of familial and romantic loves, Valentine offers readers a poem that is both complex and relevant.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "Seeing You," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Joyce Hart is a published author and former writing instructor. In this essay, she takes the poet's advice to feel the poem rather than to figure out its meaning.
In several interviews, Valentine, author of the poem "Seeing You," has stated that the point of writing or of reading poetry is not to be able to explain it but rather to feel it. Valentine has said that there are many times when she herself does not know precisely what her poems are about. She senses the emotions behind them, however, and hopes that she is able to transfer these emotions to her audience. With this idea is mind, this essay investigates the emotions behind "Seeing You."
People who have studied creativity, whether they are artists involved in the process or theorists interested in the topic, talk about the flow of the creative process. Metaphors used to explain this flow include rivers or beams of light or forces of energy. The artist, whether working with words, clay, or paint, thus becomes the vehicle through which this creativity flows. The artist must be open, focused, disciplined, and experienced in a particular medium. With these skills in place, the artist is equipped and ready to accept creative inspiration. Artists trust this flow of inspiration to bring new ideas to the imagination. Because artists have trained themselves in a medium, they are capable of interpreting the creative thoughts and transposing them into their chosen art forms. This may be what Valentine is referring to. She opens herself to the flow of creativity, which enlightens her as to how to express a feeling she has. She translates the energy that flows through her into words that create images that she and her readers can grasp. Artists such as Valentine are so open to and trusting of this flow of creative thoughts that they do not unduly censor it with rational thinking. She implies that she does not try to make these creative thoughts fit into a presubscribed language. Valentine does not stop the flow of words to ask what the words mean. Rather, she accepts the words, because they create a vessel into which she can pour her feelings.
Looking more specifically at the poem "Seeing You," readers will note that the first section of the poem is focused on the word "mother." It would not be taking too much liberty here to assume that the poet is thinking of her own mother. The words that flow from the concept "mother" must represent, according to the poet's own description of her writing, her feelings (or at least some feelings) that she has concerning her mother. The title of the poem provides the sense that the speaker is looking at her mother from the distance of time, as if she is trying to understand her relationship with her mother; from this distance, she is finally "seeing" her.
The speaker conveys these feelings through abstract concepts. She uses a metaphoric language that offers images that the reader can interpret through his or her personal experience. For example, in the first stanza, the speaker refers to having been born "under the mudbank." What feeling does this convey? This birth can be felt in a variety of ways. To be born under a mudbank might be suffocating. How could anyone breathe under a mudbank? But, then, no one breathes while in the womb. It is possible that the slimy feel of mud is one that the speaker relates to the slimy feel of uterine fluids that surround an unborn child. "Mudbank" could also make one think of a primordial field of creation, from which much of life has evolved.
After mentioning this birth in the mudbank, the poet then writes that her mother gives her a boat. A boat can be looked upon as a vessel. It is not necessary to decipher whether this is a metaphor for the mother's womb. The feeling behind the phrase is that this child who was born under a mudbank has, in some way, been rescued and protected. The boat presents itself as a safety zone, something that lifts the child out of the suffocating mud and carries it.
The speaker of this poem then switches the metaphor. The mother, who was at first seen as a boat, is now referred to as a hand. These images are not so different from each other. A cupped hand looks much like the bowed hull of a boat. The hand also works in much the same way as a boat, at least in this poem. This child, who was the speaker at one time, was carried in both the boat and the hand. The feeling between the two metaphors is therefore somewhat similar up to this point; the only difference might be a sense of perspective. A boat is something large that floats on water; a hand is much smaller and more personal. Being carried in the mother's hand as opposed to having been given the mother's boat brings a sensation of warmth to the poem, at least momentarily. In the next stanza, this feeling changes.
The mother's hand is empty, the speaker states, and it is made "like a kite." Whereas the image of a hand suggests warmth, the kite, with its angular points and inanimate and somewhat flimsy construction, offers no such warmth. It is airy and, like the boat, is removed from the child. The speaker may have felt cuddled by the mother at one point, but this was only a transitional period. So far we have been told that the child was saved by the mother's boat and lived a long time in her hand, but then that hand became kitelike and empty. This transition of feelings is better explored with reference to the following stanza, in which the speaker informs her readers that the mother was filled with fear. The speaker does not state the source of the mother's fear, but she uses a metaphor to explain how her mother's fear affected her: "I licked it from your finger-spaces / and wanted to die." This could easily be the strongest emotion of the poem. The mother's fear was fed to the child, who became, literally, scared to death by it.
The speaker mentions love, a few lines later, but she couples it with this fear. "I could see you, your fear and your love." This is not a comfortable feeling. There is confusion here. Fear makes the speaker think of death, but love draws her in despite the terror. And this, the speaker declares, "was the original garden." In other words, the sense at this point of the poem is that these were the feelings that helped to sculpt the person the speaker would become.
The second section of the poem is titled "Lover." The speaker appears to use the previous section of the poem to provide her first, or original, experiences and definitions of love: from whom she gained it, what it meant to her, and how it felt. In the second section, the speaker refers to a time when she is grown up and has found a lover. How have her feelings about love changed? How do they remain the same?
The speaker begins the second section almost in the same way that she began the first. She is not born of this lover, but there is a similar feeling that she experiences. Like the mother, the lover has an empty hand that is also made like a kite, but the speaker's experience with that empty hand feels so much healthier. She does not lick fear from the lover's fingers as she had with her mother's fingers. Rather, for some unspoken reason, she feels blessed for having been offered this empty hand. She states, "I stood my fingers / in your blue fingerspaces." Sucking from the mother's fingers brings the notion of the mother's having given nourishment to the child, but that nourishment was tainted. The mother was, in some way, superior to the child, who was dependent on her, and her love was polluted with fear. In the speaker's adult relationship with a lover, she is an equal. She does not put her mouth to the lover's fingers but rather places her own fingers there. Her fingers fit with the lover's, intertwining where the fingers are not (in the spaces between). This feels so much more like a healthy relationship compared with the one with the mother. The poet expands on this feeling of equality when she writes "my eyes' light in / your eyes' light, / we drank each other in."
The remaining stanzas of the poem feel equally more healthy, as the speaker dives past the fear that she had inherited from her relationship with her mother and finds the love, the "brilliance, at the bottom." Without even knowing the meanings for the "mental lake," the "last red inside place," the "middle of the earth," and the many other metaphors that the poet uses to conclude her poem, readers can feel the changes in the speaker—her happiness, her exaltation—that come about from having seen, and felt, the other side of love.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "Seeing You," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Ostriker is a noted poet. In the following review of Door in the Mountain, she calls Valentine "a poet's poet" and praises her poems for striking "like the arrows of a Zen archer."
She belongs to no school but the school, if one dares to mention it, of high art. She is a poet's poet, which means that she creates beauty, and has no objection to mystery. In the era covered by her work, as poetry has turned increasingly toward the popular and populist, toward accessibility and theatricality, Jean Valentine has not turned, ever, from the purity of an art that cedes nothing to fashion. Yet she is as beloved as any poet writing today.
Born in Chicago, Valentine studied at Radcliff College, has lived in New York for most of her life, and has taught at Sarah Lawrence, NYU, Columbia University, and the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan, among other places, earning the devotion of generations of students. She won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her eccentrically-titled first book, Dream Barker, in 1965 (compare Adrienne Rich's A Change of World, which won the same prize a generation earlier, in 1951), and while publishing eight other books she has received numerous other awards. Most recently, Door in the Mountain received the 2004 National Book Award for poetry.
With this history, you might think "mainstream." But Valentine's title poem will give you a provocative taste of a voice like no other:
Never ran this hard through the valley
never ate so many stars
I was carrying a dead deer
tied on to my neck and shoulders
deer legs hanging in front of me
heavy on my chest
People are not wanting
to let me in
Door in the mountain
let me in.
Part of the magic here is that we cannot tell if that last line is a beseeching request for something that has not happened and may never happen—solace, acceptance, renewal—or if it is a declaration of something that has happily, against all odds, happened. It can be either. And we must guess for ourselves, by our own interior experiences of despair and hope, what that mountain is, what that door is, what blocks us, what allows us entry. We may be reminded of Hart Crane's poignant "Permit me voyage, love, into your hands," or of Galway Kinnell's "The Bear," two poems of vision quest, though Valentine's diction is the more spare.
This is one of Jean Valentine's many dream poems, poems of profound imagination, delicate and sensual, fearless and magical, poems that often seem to make her the heir of John Keats and of Wallace Stevens. Her language is haunting in ways it would be hard to explain. I don't know why I want to say a line like "The snow is over and the sky is light," over and over like a mantra, but I do. "Looking into a Jean Valentine poem," Adrienne Rich says,
is like looking into a lake: you can see your own outline, and the shapes of the upper world, reflected among rocks, underwater life, glint of lost bottles, drifted leaves. The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet … it lets as into spaces and meanings we couldn't approach in any other way.
Yes, I agree, and then again, looking into Valentine's poetry is also like playing chess with a master—you might think you know what's happening on the board, how the game is developing, and suddenly the other player's bishop skids along a border, a knight twists before your very eyes and lands someplace you never thought of, a queen sails majestically through your frail defenses. In "The Messenger," for instance,
Now I want to live forever
Now I could scatter my body easily
if it was any use
now that the earth
has rained through us
green green grass
Did you expect that stanza closure? No, you didn't. Is it beautiful, is it mysterious? Yes, it is. Does something within you, seldom touched, feel touched by it? I hope so.
For there is no standard Valentine poem, no predictable Valentine move. She writes hot love poems and tender elegies. She writes short-line free verse and long prose poems. She writes brilliantly and painfully of dysfunctional family life and of the life of the spirit; she can write about mental breakdown, alcoholism, AIDS, and desire with the accuracy of a scalpel and the sweetness of a flute. One sequence of poems, "Her Lost Book," contains poems as devastating as anything written at the height of fiminist rage, though the tone is utterly controlled:
I was dark and silent.
The therapist said.
"Why don't you wear lipstick?"
To J: "Does she lie on top?" To J:
"Don't play her role.
Don't give the children their baths
or feed them."
Another sequence is about visiting a friend in prison. Another is about the death of her mother. She is unafraid to ask unanswerable questions like "why are we in this life" or to cry "God break me out / of this stiff life I've made." She is part Catholic, part Buddhist, she prays and she meditates, she sees herself sometimes as a horse, she sees the soul sometimes as a boat, she describes the process of writing as listening. Often there is a koan-like quality to the poems, defying rationality in ways that help us break through to another dimension of the real. Often she makes me think of a poem by the great Japanese poet Basho: "The barn burned down. Now I can see the moon."
In the new poems of Door in the Mountain, Valentine continues an impulse toward the ardently and intensely chaste, writing in a style more austere and cryptic than ever. Yet the poems strike like the arrows of a Zen archer. Here is one more. "To the Bardo," that shifts before our gaze from loss and confusion to illumination, the scarf up the magician's sleeve, the trick we might all want to learn:
I dreamed I finally got through to C on the phone
he was whispering
I couldn't make out the words
he had been in the hospital
and then in a home
M was sick too
You know how in dreams you are everyone:
awake too you are everyone:
I am listening breathing your ashy breath
old Chinese poet:
to see the way.
Source: Alicia Ostriker, "Seeing the Way," in American Book Review, Vol. 26, No. 4, May-June 2005, p. 16.
D. H. Tracy
In the following review of Door in the Mountain, Tracy calls Valentine's poems "disquieting" in their progression from "abundance to their fleeting and attenuated meaning."
Door in the Mountain collects Valentine's eight previous books (including Dream Barker, selected for the Yale Younger Poets series in 1965) and several dozen new poems. You could say that Dream Barker was her best book, but it was really the only one that cared how it sounded, and she subsequently lost even that limited appetite for Plath-like musical lavishness:
How deep we met in the sea, my love,
My double, my Siamese heart, my whiskery,
fish-belly, glue-eyed prince, my dearest black nudge
—From "First Love"
She writes in this book with a three-quarters profile that enables certain voicings—her passing indictment of Cambridge, for example ("Every public place in this city / Is a sideshow of souls swordswallowing pity"), is better than Cummings's. But the stance is made in part of disengagement, and you sense that, although her poetics faces the daylight world of a readership, the poet herself would rather not. In subsequent collections, the poet prevails by degrees. Valentine goes from some form in Dream Barker (1965) to none in Pilgrims (1969). The poems begin to feel reactive and momentary, and solitude becomes a condition which they can explore but not ameliorate. In Ordinary Things (1974) she prays, "God break me out / of this stiff life I've made." In her translations from the Dutch of Huub Oosterhuis, she is attracted to the theme of blurrings and dissolving markings: chalk lines on a floor rubbed off, footprints in the snow blown over, sand rubbed into eyes. Somewhere around The River at Wolf (1992) the poems on the page begin to seem like footprints of the poems in her head, and mistrust of surfaces has gone from a secondary consideration to a constrictive condition.
What's disquieting is that this progression seems to have no proximate cause. She never expresses revulsion at public language, and no single private tragedy or crisis undoes her (though recently someone close, I think a young man, is in prison). Lately, the poems have little evident patterning, although even in their privacy and dream logic they bemoan their own aphasia. The last five lines of the book are true, in their ephemera, to the means Valentine has arrived at:
off the Atlantic
out towards strangeness
a breath on a coal
But it is wrenching to see a poet erode herself in this way, and, even with all the evidence of the poems before you, be unable to reconstruct the route they took from abundance to their fleeting and attenuated meaning.
Source: D. H. Tracy, Review of Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965–2003, in Poetry, Vol. 186, No. 3, June 2005, pp. 257-59.
Jean Valentine and Richard Jackson
In the following interview with Richard Jackson of Poetry Miscellany, Valentine discusses what the interviewer calls her "fragmentary vision" and her relationship to the narrative voices in her poems.
[Poetry Miscellany]: Your poetry is unique in the way it presents itself; it seems to be based upon fragments, shifts in perspective, traces, frayings. As you say in "Twenty Days' Journey," it is a world of things "almost visible," of "The blown away footstep / in the snow." Could we begin by talking about the nature of the vision, this world, where often, it seems, "it was like touching the center and therefore losing it, emptying it of what you might have been able to hold on to" ("February 9th"). It seems a world of deferrals, discontinuities, differences, gaps.
[Jean Valentine]: I can only respond to your first sentence here, very simply: that when I'm most attentive, these "fragments," etc., are very often what I sense and feel; they are how I "get" this time and place and the currents of my private and public life and the lives around me. To try to clarify this—not to compare—I think of, for instance, Paul Klee's painting, certain newspaper photos or documentary film scenes, or certain intricately plotted mysteries.
In The Lives Around Me I include the work of someone like Huub Oosterhuis (you quote next from my version of his long poem Twenty Days' Journey, made with the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg). To try a version of this poem, I had to feel very close to it. There are still mysteries in the poem for me, but I make out this much: a vision of both personal and worldwide suffering of loss and anguish, in which a personal and/or an Everyman "I" undertakes a journey: a journey in search of God, who is both present and absent in the poem, and who also suffers loss and anguish. (I should say clearly here that I haven't had the chance to talk with either Herzberg or Oosterhuis about this, and I could be very far off.) The experience of that journey is something I could only have known or approached at all through Oosterhuis's poem: but to return to your question, the poem seems fragmented as its subject seems to demand.
Your second quotation, from "February 9th" (from The Messenger) came to me in a letter from a friend and spoke wonderfully to me of one negative side of naming: I think Robert Coles said this somewhere, though I can't remember his exact words: "Name it, and it is so." Just the opposite, of course, of the creating or the hallowing powers of naming, this would be the destructive use of language to lie, to deny, to erase life. In the quotation, it would be the violent or intrusive use of touch.
Your sense of timing seems predicated upon this same fragmentary vision. For example, "This Minute" portrays the moment as being continually undercut as the filmstrip keeps running again and again, presencing future, present, and past in the one moment. Or take "Here Now," where "The sky is the same changing / colors as the farthest snow"—here the moment gets defined by all the possibilities that range beyond it. Could you sketch out, then, how you feel time is at work in the poems as a theme, as a principle of structuring?
I don't think the use of time in "This Minute" is trying to do anything more than to present a nightmare, in which time does not move naturally, historically, but is fixed, distorted.
About how time is at work in the poems in general, again I can only say simply that this awareness of past and present and future "in the one moment" seems to me how time is experienced, when one is most alive, most attentive—except perhaps for extraordinary moments when only the present is there.
I don't really see time as a "theme" in my own poems, except in the most ordinary and universal ways. As a "principle of structuring"—our thoughts do range all over time, and in lots of poems I am trying to catch the way someone might think, or "think out loud" in a quiet talk with some close friend, or say in a letter.
In the context of this fragmentary vision, it often seems that the processes of writing, collecting, locating, comparing, absenting become themselves part of the subject of the poems. That is, there often seems a way in which the process itself is the subject, not the fact of the finished poem. I perceive a sense that the poem is always emerging, even in its last line—this holds especially true for the poems in The Messenger. I think of Stevens's ideal that all poems comprise or refer to an ideal, always unwritten poem. Do you have this sense of your work? I think of the last poem in The Messenger that is also a sort of collecting of images from earlier in the book.
If this "sense that the poem is always emerging" is working successfully, that is, if the poem is accessible, I'd be very content. I have this wish, right now anyhow, to catch our experience "on the fly," so to speak: a pull against the poem as a sort of finished, well-wrought statement—much as I admire and love that kind of poem by certain other poets.
Yes, like Stevens, I certainly do imagine how one is writing along underneath some one "ideal, always unwritten poem" all one's life—I like very much Anne Sexton's notion that this ideal poem is being written by everyone all the time, a sort of communal poem being written by all the poets alive. Though with Stevens again, I would imagine this poem as "an ideal, always unwritten." Being "written after," maybe.
In the last poem in The Messenger, "March 21st," I'm sure there are images collected that I wasn't conscious of; but in that piece I was consciously trying to bring in sense-echoes from the various sections of the sequence, "Solitudes," trying to get to a moment of gathering-in, there.
There is a double movement in the poems—in "Sanctuary," for instance, there is a "scattering of life" that is counterpointed by the movement along "the thread you have to keep finding, over again, to / follow it back to life." Could you describe your sense of this movement? It seems as if the farther you go out into things, into the world, the more you find yourself intact; an escape from the self to find the self. In psychology, at least that of Jacques Lacan, this movement tends to suggest an otherness we seek; we always seek to know ourselves in, identify with, the Other a double.
What you say is very good, and it ought to be included. But I have nothing to add because you really answer it yourself.
How do you see yourself figured in the poems? In other words, what is the relationship between you and your voices, narrators? Sometimes your perspective changes in a single poem, such as "Susan's Photograph," where you are razor, wrist, photographer, the friend, and so on. UItimately, then, this is a question about voice, its varieties and modulations, about the ways you throw yourself, aspects of your self that are real or imagined, into the poems.
One thing I feel sure of about the use of the self is that while there are poems that may use the "I" with very little of the "real self" in them, there are no poems that present the "real self" precisely, "as is," as one would try to in, say, an autobiography.
I think the relationship between me and my voices, narrators, is the common one: I am trying to move into an other, into others; to move out of the private self into an imagination of everyone's history, into the public world. This is what I most want to do—maybe what every lyric poet most wants to do. This effort in no way means to exclude the eccentric, but to enlarge what is human. (Here Emily Dickinson and Whitman both come to mind and the wonderful southern poet of our own time, Eleanor Ross Taylor.)
What is the nature of the "messenger"? It seems a sort of metamorphic entity. I think, for example, of "Beka, 41," where you tell the girl that the messenger is like her brother,
like the penguin
who sits on the nest of pebbles, and the one
who brings home pebbles, to the nest's edge in his
one at a time, and also like the one
who is lying there, warm, who is going to break
becoming yourself; the messenger is growing …
I think also of "Turn (2): After Years," where the name of the absent friend is presenced at the end by uttering the two words "other" and "thou" almost as if to bring them together, as if to presence the absent other, to bring the messenger close. Could we talk, then, about the "messenger" and the "you"?
Yes, in "Beka, 14," the messenger is a metamorphic figure: I tried to use the changing figures as messengers coming, gradually, to call the fourteen-year-old child to her adult life, including, at the end of the poem, her leaving home to go her own way. A series of callings. Whether the "messenger" is thought of as internal (as it becomes, halfway through this particular poem), or as an external figure, doesn't matter, I don't think: what matters to me in the poem is the figuring of the person's coming into possession of his or her own strongest desires—something which Father William E Lynch, S.J., writes so clearly and so healingly of in his book Images of Hope.
In "Turn (2): After Years," I hadn't thought consciously of a messenger figure, but I do feel the absent friend "present at the end" of the poem, yes. The two words Other and thou are trying to express closeness and the redemption of a harmful past. In this way, the poem is (maybe like many poems) part recognition and part talk, real or imagined, to another person.
Your poems, especially in The Messenger, defy paraphrase perhaps as well as any I know. Yet there is a certain "path of saying," as Heidegger calls it, that can be followed in poems. For him, this sort of movement is an undercurrent or underplot that must be participated in and that goes below the surface of the words. It is something like a "gesture" of language. I think that all the things we have been talking about so far are the elements of this underplot. Could you speak to how this works in poems or something like it that you might have experienced?
I like Heidegger's notion and his phrase for it. I'm more familiar with the process you bring up here as a teacher than in my own writing: to try to hear a poem with students, rather than to encourage a kind of structured puzzling out of the poet's "meaning," which ends up being reductive. But this can be a tricky business, because in the poems I most value, there is meaning, and very precise meaning, at that.
Barthes called texts "infinite cipher" because for him their ultimate meanings were unresolvable, unfathomable. Would you say that a poem should strive for this (from your own point of view), and that the techniques of fragmentation, shifting perspectives, and so on that we discussed earlier are means of achieving the character of an infinite cipher? How much of what goes on beyond the words is the poet aware of? to what extent?
I haven't read Barthes, but from what you tell me here, I'd go on with my last sentence, in the previous question, to disagree with his idea of a poem as an "infinite cipher," etc. For myself, I'd always want a poem to have mystery, yes, but also to be very clear. That tension matters as much as anything to me in a poem—as much as the music of its language, say.
As to how aware the poet is of "what goes on beyond the words," I just don't know. Sometimes a reader will see a lot in a poem of mine that I never say; but I do always hope absolutely that what I did see will be very clear, very precise. And when a reader misses what I'm up to, well, then I know I've missed getting it down.
More and more, I revere poets who are both simple and endlessly resonant with meaning: Elizabeth Bishop, Tomas Tranströmer, to think of just a couple. Their poems remind me of a phrase of Frost's, about thought being "a feat of association." And their thought is always grounded in the real: there's a real bridge, a real gas station, and so forth.
Barthes also talked about literature's subversive activity. That is, for him, literature subverts by undermining the ordinary ways we perceive and think about the world. For him, as for, say, Susan Sontag, literature ought to be unsettling. It ought to provide new categories of thought. Do you see anything like this working in your own poems? Your "ordinary things," to steal one of your titles, become very extraordinary in your poems.
"New categories of thought"—well, the writing we remember does bring us something new, does in that sense trouble our sleeping selves, keep us from settling down in whatever we thought last year, or last month; and that's one thing writing seems to be for, yes.
But my wish in using the title "Ordinary Things" was not so much to be ironic as to look as attentively as I could at the ordinary, at the sort of feelings and events that are part of everyone's daily life in this time and place. It was a high ambition which I still have (and which many writers must have): an attempt at what Martin Buber calls "the hallowing of the everyday."
Source: Jean Valentine and Richard Jackson, "The Hallowing of the Everyday," in Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, Unversity of Alabama, 1983, pp. 27-31.
Cramer, Steven, "Self-defense—The River at Wolf by Jean Valentine / Meetings with Time by Carl Dennis / Apocrypha by Eric Pankey / and Others," in Poetry, Vol. 161, No. 3, December 1992, p. 161.
Freeman, John, Review of Door in the Mountain: New and Selected Poems, 1965–2003, in the Seattle Times, November 28, 2004, Section K, p. 7.
Hoffert, Barbara, "Best Poetry of 2004," in Library Journal, Vol. 130, No. 7, April 15, 2005, p. 94.
Jackson, Richard, "The Hallowing of the Everyday," in Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, University of Alabama Press, 1983, pp. 27, 29.
Klein, Michael, "Jean Valentine: An Interview," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 20, No. 4, July/August 1991, pp. 39-44.
Muske, Carol, "Growing Darkness, Growing Light," in the Nation, Vol. 265, No. 3, July 21, 1997, pp. 36, 37.
Ostriker, Alicia, "Seeing the Way," in American Book Review, Vol. 26, No. 4, May/June 2005, p. 16.
Review of The River at Wolf, in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer 1993, p. SS101.
Rivard, David, Review of The River at Wolf, in Ploughshares, Vol. 19, No. 2, Fall 1993, p. 246.
Susskind, H., Review of The River at Wolf, in Choice, Vol. 30, No. 5, January 1993, p. 798.
Upton, Lee, The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets, Bucknell University Press, 1998, pp. 76, 77, 90-91.
Howe, Florence, ed., No More Masks!: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Perennial, 1993.
Originally published in 1973, this book is an important collection of women's poetry that portrays the themes of individual identity and roles in society as women have asked for justice and nonviolence across the decades.
Middlebrook, Diane Wood, and Marilyn Yalom, eds., Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century, University of Michigan Press, 1985.
The Center for Research on Women at Stanford University collected sixteen essays for this book on the relationship of the American literary tradition and women poets. The volume includes bibliographies.
Rankine, Claudia, and Julia Spahr, eds., American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language, Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
This volume explores the influence of gender on contemporary poetry with statements on aesthetics and identity by the ten featured poets. The book includes a critical essay on each poet and a bibliography of works.
Zook, Amy Jo, and Wauneta Hackleman, eds., The Study and Writing of Poetry by American Women Poets, 2nd rev. ed., Whitston Publishing Company, 1996.
Designed for high school and college students, this handbook provides explanations by fifty contemporary American women poets about the techniques used in writing poetry.