By Kelly O’Toole
It was a good year for poetry at Rutgers. Jean Valentine read on December 1 at the Zimmerli Art Museum soon after receiving the 2004 National Book Award for her latest collection, Door in the Mountain. Students in poetry and creative writing classes mixed with fans, and even though extra seats were brought in, there were people standing in the back of the room to hear Ms. Valentine speak.
Professor and poet Alicia Ostriker introduced Ms. Valentine as a “fearless and magical” writer, and compared reading a Valentine poem to playing chess with a master, because “there is no predictable Valentine move.” Ms. Valentine’s poems are known for being short, dense, and intensely evocative, complex but rewarding to think about. Author Grace Paley has written: “After reading a couple of Jean Valentine’s poems I need to catch my breath. Then I read further – maybe two or three to quiet myself, which happens for a while. But then I put the book down breathless.”
Ms. Valentine read from her 1992 book of poems The River at Wolf as well as Door in the Mountain. The poems she selected from The River at Wolf focused mainly on love and on the death of her mother, feelings she said she had revisited in her most recent work. Ms. Valentine explained to the audience that Door in the Mountain is about love, longing, and loss, particularly “the loss of our own possibilities.”
In her work, Ms. Valentine draws from many sources, and she sometimes describes writing as a form of listening. She told the audience that her poems begin from such experiences as visiting a friend in prison, remembering her babysitter from when she was young, learning to write with her left hand after breaking her wrist, or taking a hearing test. Yet, the poems are not detailed accounts of her life and do not seem obviously autobiographical. Instead they are sparse and fragmentary, informed by everyday life but not explicitly tied to it.
One good example was a new poem called “The Windows,” which Ms. Valentine read and explained. She said that the poem stemmed from an experience she had in church, when a woman misread a line from the gospel. Rather than saying “widows,” the woman read, “All the windows came to him in tears,” now a line in the poem. “The Windows” does not retell the story of hearing this mistake though. Instead, the poem uses this accidental language to create its own strange imagery, finding a different sort of meaning in the misreading.
As a poet who also teaches creative writing, Ms. Valentine was willing to explain the process behind her poems during the reading. Afterward, she answered many questions from the audience, mostly about her process of composition and her poetic technique. Ms. Valentine occasionally turned her answer into a discussion, letting the students who asked questions say more about their thoughts about writing and poetry. Her attentive and friendly approach made the reading feel, at times, like an advanced class in poetry writing.
Ms. Valentine’s visit was a treat for poetry lovers at Rutgers, a fascinating look “between the lines” of her short and powerful poems.
Jean Valentine’s Website
Writers at Rutgers