ON THE MORNING of July 31, 2015, Jean and I sat down in her kitchen to talk. We have sat this way, across from each other at her table, regularly over a dozen years of a friendship that began after I was her student in a summer workshop. Over these years our talk has touched upon and returned to many of the same themes — family, friends, love, gender, memory, loss, sobriety, spirituality, and, of course, poetry — which are also central concerns of her writing. In preparation for our conversation about Shirt in Heaven, Jean and I of course returned to many of these themes, but during our conversation I wanted to highlight some unique aspects of her new book. Because the political and historical dimensions of Jean’s poetry are often overlooked, I wanted to dig deeper into the context for this new work, particularly the way the book seems psychically grounded in Jean’s childhood in the 1940s. In addition to the political dimension of that time period, I also wanted to draw out some of the familial dynamics that arose from the war and from the gendered nature of military and civilian lives at that time, dynamics that would become crucial for her education as a poet. We also left plenty of room for our conversation to return to themes that run through the whole of Jean’s body of work, the themes that have bound together our conversations and our friendship: elegy, poetry, and love.
BRIAN TEARE: I wanted to start our conversation by talking about the 1940s and the importance of the 1940s for some of the poems in Shirt in Heaven. And I thought maybe the best way to begin that conversation would be with your reading one of those poems. Would you read “1945” for us?
JEAN VALENTINE: Sure.
[JV reads “1945.”]
Thank you. This seems like such an important poem in the first section of the book because of the way it brings the war into the family. And that seems like one of the very important things for you about this era. Could you talk more about that?
1945 was the year that the war ended. World War Two is what we’re talking about, of course. In 1945, in August, was Hiroshima, and the war ended quickly after that. In our family, my dad came home before that. He came home in ’44 and was working in Washington. And we were living in Washington.
This poem deals with the veterans’ traumas seen from the point of view of a child of 11, as I was then. It was very frightening. He was home, the war was over, but the trauma went on. I don’t know what I thought at the time, but I remember this kind of fear in every one of us. I don’t have my sister or brother in this poem, but it was very much alive in my father’s mind.
Not to single him out — millions of people did this — but he would still go remembering. “Man your battle stations!” That kind of thing. He had been on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. And was a liaison officer. He had been an officer in the Navy — like many who enlisted right away in ’41, then became officers with 90 days training. He was on a ship where he was liaison to the fliers, the pilots. So that would be his particular experience of terror and death in that war.
One of the things that moves me about the poem is the way the family’s made of wood. They’ve been made into this inflexible thing in relationship to the father and the father’s trauma, and so I’m particularly moved by that final image — “we’re in this thing like leaves.” We get this image of leaves that are so responsive and trembling and able to register a lot, in contrast to wood, which as an image is less flexible and less immediately able to register motion. There’s this really beautiful sense of being locked in an inflexible situation that’s also about fragility and vulnerability. The poem does a beautiful job of recreating that atmosphere.
Good. I hadn’t thought of the leaves in the way that you’re talking about them. I did think of them as fragile. But now that we’re talking about them, I’m thinking of them also as hope in some way. I did think, reading it through just now, that the thing that comforted me at the time was the dog. The dog comforted me. I think that was the only thing, actually. Being able to say “God, listen kindness” comes from now — it didn’t come from then. But “we’re in this thing like leaves” is fragile, fragile, and it’s more than an image of hope probably. And the thing about wood is that it felt absolutely impermeable to me in this poem — not always, but you couldn’t talk, you couldn’t be talked to, you couldn’t connect. And it was a deadening image. I hope that comes through.
Yes. And where I’m also seeing and agreeing with you about a sense of hope is that when we begin, those trees are winter trees. But we’re in a different part of the seasonal cycle, in spring/summer at the end of the poem. So there is some growth and change. The leaves can tremble and respond in a way a wooden trunk can’t. So I do feel that shift from a real impermeable situation to this more hopeful, more responsive place.
I’m glad. Just noticing it now, this one moment of address to kindness is also a sign of hope: “Listen kindness.” Because as long as there’s kindness, there’s hope.
And I love that the poem’s not about blaming the father or making him into a villain. There is a kindness in the awareness of the fact that he’s one among many veterans, as you say toward the end of the poem. I felt that was really moving — the implicit knowledge that even though he’s frightening, it’s not his fault. Though the poem tries to understand him without making him not scary either.
I’m so glad because I don’t think any of us ever blamed him, honestly. I think we were scared. But I think, in his own way, he did let us know what he was going through, as best as he could. And he was going through so much, and so was my mother. And so were we all.
I wonder if you could read “1943: The Vision,” another poem from early in the book?
So this, of course, came two years earlier, when we were visiting someone’s house. We were living in California then. My dad hadn’t gone to the Pacific yet. He was about to go.
[JV reads “1943: The Vision.”]
This is such an incredibly crucial poem for the book. And when we were talking in preparation for this interview, you shared some notes about this poem that mentioned how pivotal this moment was for you as a poet, too. I’m wondering if you could speak about that.
I think I became conscious of that because we were talking about it, so thank you. I never forgot it — it’s always remained very vivid to me. For one thing, my parents were frightened by my telling them about this. I don’t blame them. But their way of responding to that was to say, “That didn’t happen. You’re making this up. Don’t talk about this anymore.” I can see why they were frightened. But they also said, “No, you didn’t see that. Of course you didn’t. It wasn’t there.” Which, at one level, was true. But I had seen it.
I don’t believe there was anything like that, by the way, now. But then, I did. I had seen it; it was there. And I told them about it. And I think one of the things that frightened me about it was this: I must be nuts. I was nine, but I was capable of that thought. I’d probably been capable of that thought for a while — not about myself, but it wasn’t a far-out thought. I thought I must be nuts. And that frightened me more than the thing had, more than the vision. The vision felt scary, but — real and part of life.
And so the I-must-be-nuts part stayed with me for a long, long time, especially in view of my family because they were the people I lived with and — along with teachers and other good people — they were my only touchstone for reality. So I thought they must be right. But I knew they must be wrong. So that was a big split. And I may be romanticizing a bit, but I think at that time, I threw my lot in with the vision. I really do. In retrospect I did, at any rate. Whether I did at nine, I’m not sure, but I know I didn’t doubt it. I just knew they doubted it and me — but I never doubted that I saw it. I can almost see it now.
I think you’re right to say who knows exactly what you thought at the time. But what moves me so much about the poem is the way you narrate the certainty that the child has: she knows exactly what it means. And she also knows that everyone has bought into this. This is what is life is, and everyone has already agreed to this.
That was moving to me, too.
What I love about the vision is exactly what you said: it’s awful, but there’s a sense of acceptance and resignation, that it’s just part of life. This is the bargain we all have to make, and everyone else has already done it. Implicitly the child is saying, “Well, I’ll do it too. Everyone has promised.”
That was crucial, I think. And certainly became conscious later. But on some level I think it became conscious then. Because I was reading all the time, and I remember one of the people I was reading at the time was Edgar Allen Poe. So nothing was too weird for me — or for him, of course! That put me in a world in my own room, reading my book. I had a room of my own; I had a book of my own; I was very lucky. And I was let alone enough in my own private world — except for this occasion — that I could believe whatever I wanted. And did.
School was a complete write-off. I didn’t have teachers at that time that I could talk to. I had one best friend, but I don’t remember talking to him about that. Because it freaked me out that my parents knew it hadn’t happened, and I knew it had. That was a big division between me and others. And between me and people I thought knew more about the world in general than I did. But in this case, I thought they knew nothing — and I knew it. And not only that, but they disliked it in me. They really pushed me away over this.
One of the things that strikes me as really profound — though the poem doesn’t in any way push this — is that it’s 1943. To have this vision of the world in 1943 is not crazy. People are doing monstrous things in the world.
And so it’s one of the things I really love about how this early part of the book speaks about history. It might be coming in a slant, visionary way, but still the child knows a lot about how the world works.
Children do. And we were seeing LIFE magazine in those days. LIFE magazine was a great magazine during the war. For war photography, it was amazing. We were seeing camps; we were seeing starvation; we were seeing battlefields. And that was just in the house. There was also The Eyes and Ears of the World whenever we went to the movies. It was a weekly newsreel that they used to have at every movie. They had a lot of war photographs and a lot of war coverage. So this didn’t come out of nowhere, by any means.
It was as you say, I think. It was: maybe that’s what I knew, too. But they weren’t people who could talk about anything like that. My father when he was drunk would talk occasionally about someone he knew who’d been killed. Very occasionally. And when he was drunk. But that did help me in a sense of reality. Because at that age certainly, I didn’t say, He’s drunk, it isn’t true. I said, He’s drunk, but it’s true. His being drunk made it more scary, but it was so scary anyway.
One of the other things that you do in these poems of the 1940s is create links to other countries and literary traditions affected by the war. So you have a really moving poem for Paul Celan. And you also have a poem for Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam. I wonder if you would read “Hold the finch,” the poem for the Mandelstams.
If I were reading this in public, I would say that the goldfinch was Mandelstam’s favorite bird. And that’s because she — and I’ll say she here — represents eternity in the world of symbolic art. And that’s why they have a goldfinch on the cover of Merwin’s translation of Mandelstam. It was his favorite.
[JV reads “Hold the finch.”]
He has been a really important poet for you for a long time. I wonder if you could speak about your relationship to him. It makes sense in this part of the book for him to come up, but he comes up for you a lot.
He does, yeah. And I wonder how much of it is the war. Because he’s very important to me, and she’s very important to me, and Tsvetaeva of course is very important to me. And they were all killed by the war. Madame Mandelstam wasn’t, but she lost her husband. She did survive and do wonderful work after the war, but the other two didn’t. Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva were both killed — with Tsvetaeva it was suicide, but it was the war. So it being a time when I saw death and disaster for the first time on this scale — maybe on any scale—they may hark me back to it. I don’t know why they do more than American writers.
I remember very much when that Merwin translation came out. I had heard of Mandelstam before, of course — and of the Mandelstams. But my friend Jane Cooper said, “Have you seen the Merwin book?” And I sort of shrugged; I had just begun to pick it up. And she said, “Well, have you seen the Voronezh poems?” Those are the last ones in the book, poems written when he was in exile. And those made the hair stand up on my head, and they always do. And they always will. In those poems he became himself. I think he was always amazing, but for me he became most himself then.
Also it’s an amazingly heroic story. And her part in the story is as heroic as his. We wouldn’t have that work if it weren’t for her. It was very dangerous for her to save it, and she did. And she lived, thank God. But I think what matters most is his extremity in that time of his life, and how art saved him. And it saves us. And I think that’s the same feeling I have about Tsvetaeva, and about Nadezhda, and certainly about Celan. Huge. He wanted to save the language, and for all I know he did. He may still be saving it. He was so important. And his heroism in the face of his despair was also very important for me. And Mandelstam’s. He did have at least one terrible breakdown after prison. And I think his wife saved him — but I think also he saved himself to do this work, like Celan did.
So that has meant a great deal to me. It’s given me a lot of courage. And courage for others. Courage for humans. If you have art that you’re passionate about, it can get you through. Especially if it’s a passion that connects with others, which I guess all passion does if you’re a great artist.
One thing we talked about in preparation for this interview is how this is also a book of fathers — and also of literary fathers. And that also seems to be true of Mandelstam in particular. Even though he’s not someone you knew personally, his example helped father your own work.
Oh absolutely. I don’t know if there’s more to say. But I think he is a human example for me, too. Because he seems to have been such a loving and brave person toward other people — not just brave in himself, of course, but so brave towards Akhmatova, as she was toward him. They were so close, and so brave in each other’s presence about the police and about being arrested, everything. You know the story of the egg?
She came to visit. And she knew he was going to be arrested; he knew he was going to be arrested; everybody knew. And she knew enough about arrests from her family life, that she only had one thing to bring him, and that was an egg. And so Nadezhda said, “We’ll all share it.” And Akhmatova said, “No, it’s for him. He’s getting arrested today.” And so he ate the egg. It’s beautiful to me the way they loved each other, and the way they were brave.
One of the things that happens later in this book, in the third section, is that we come back to the ’40s in the poem “Could it be heat?” And we also come back to father figures. It was one of the things structurally about the book that really moved me. We move away from the ’40s in the second section, “Friend,” and come back to it in the third, “Threshold.” I wonder if you could read “Could it be heat?” because this seems to be a really important poem linking back to that time of the ’40s. But also to fathering and to writing, and to a commitment to a life of poetry. And these are all intertwined for you during that time.
Absolutely. And to go back to “The Vision” for a minute: it’s interesting. Yes, it made me think I was crazy, but it also made me think, I’ve got something.
[JV reads “Could it be heat?”]
What is the connection for you between the father and a life of writing?
The father in this case is a few things. It’s his being loving to me in a way that was very, very welcome and also a bit threatening. He was the person in the family who loved me, so it was very much wanted, but at the same time it felt a little too sexual. And I don’t know if that’s coming through in the poem, but it’s there for me.
And at the same time I’m recognizing the beauty of his wanting his daughters to be educated. So that’s “You sent me away to the library.” And he also wanted us to find men in our lives, “for love.” He wanted me to go to college to get an education, but in those days the idea was also Maybe she’ll meet somebody at college. And in that family, for a woman, it was a man.
Then I shift to saying, “I found two books,” but I really mean two people. And one was the Window and one was the Door. And I mean out of the house I was dark in. And he wanted that for me. That’s the beautiful thing in this.
One of the things that you do with this short sequence of poems is that then you write a poem, “The Window,” in the voice of this character. And then “The Door” also comes in. So we do get a sense that these “books” are people. But they’re also these architectural elements that open — or can open. And so we do also get a sense that the speaker is fathered into openness.
Exactly! It’s beautiful. I mean, it’s a beautiful act.
And that’s a narrative of sexual maturation — but also you connect it to literature. And so it’s all connected here in a way I find really moving.
I’m so glad that works. And these people that I met did open me. That opening, I suppose, was and wasn’t sexual. But the point was that it was into literature. It was sexual enough that it could get me away from home, which is really what my father wanted for me, too. There was no doubt in my mind about that.
But the Window and the Door were people I met who welcomed me as a poet into life. In a small way, that had happened in school, but this was much more serious to me. I guess that just means I believed it.
One of the things you write in “The Door,” the first of the Door poems is, “When I first heard you on the phone / the voice had to be that 40s wartime voice / for it to get under my skin like it did / after seven years asleep.” I was really moved by the way history and that era comes back in this section, and it comes back in the figure of a man who isn’t the father, but who echoes and brings his history back into the speaker’s life. And the speaker is really alive to that. And this is “The Door,” which is usually bigger than a window and allows entrance in a more significant way than a window does.
Right. You don’t just see, but you can actually walk out through it. That’s exactly right, I feel. This “wartime voice” — this was somebody I knew who actually had very much the same way of speaking as Franklin Roosevelt, who was of course the wartime president. And so, yikes! That got to me in a deep way, because we used to listen to Roosevelt the way you see it in movies sometimes: we huddled around the radio listening to these speeches of Churchill or FDR. To hear that from someone I knew, that voice — he was a power to me because he was a power in poetry, and he was saying, I’m a poet. And he loved me. And so it was — again — a father loving and saying, “You can do this thing.” And that’s very powerful, young as I was, especially looking back. It was huge. And I know it was complicated, but I wish it for everybody in some form or another, because it gave me the courage to go on.
One of the things we also talked about in preparation for this interview was how this poem is the only poem to repeat lines from another poem in the book: “You’re at the beginning of something, you said, / and I’m at the end of something.” So I’m wondering if you could read “Shirt in Heaven,” since it’s about the same person.
That’s right, of course — and here’s FDR.
Yes! I love that you made that connection.
[JV reads “Shirt in Heaven.” ]
I love that that in this poem you bring in the notion of being a student to this figure — as well as the erotic aspects of that relationship. Along with everything else, there’s this sense of having learned from him.
Oh, I learned everything from him. He was just incredibly generous. And he was the Door, the first teacher of poetry I’d had since the Window in college. These two men were huge lights to me. And maybe saved me. I don’t mean to be overdramatic, but for somebody to believe in you when you’re young — it can be everything. That’s why I like teaching.
I wonder if this is a good time — given that “Shirt in Heaven” is an elegy for an important male figure — to talk about “Friend,” which is an extended elegiac sequence. One of the things I like about the sequence, in terms of the book’s structure, is that it centers the book on elegy, particularly on the spiritual connection with a dead one, the act of speaking across the boundary between life and death, and feeling very concretely the presence of someone who’s passed.
I especially love the way the poem tracks, over time, how the connection with the one who’s passed relaxes and is not as intense, though there’s also the sense that sometimes they’re still quite close.
The poem navigates that really beautifully. It doesn’t track time passing in a diaristic manner — it’s been 10 days, it’s been two weeks — but we still get that sense of ebb and flow. And I wonder if you could talk about the difference between writing an elegy like “Shirt in Heaven” from many years’ distance, so it’s retrospective and sums up something about the relationship, as opposed to writing an elegy like “Friend,” which almost has the feel of real time as it responds to the very close presence of the dead one. They’re incredibly different ways of writing an elegy, if that makes sense.
It does. The poems were written around the same time, but the deaths were at very different times. In “Shirt in Heaven,” the death was decades and decades before, but it’s looking back on the gift of that person in my life. And the fierce missing of him, even after all these years. And gratitude for his teaching.
“Friend” is much more written in time, “real time,” as you say. I wrote it when a friend died, a friend whom I had been blessed to see on two visits of a few days each while he was very ill and when it was known he was not going to survive. And it was not a romance, but a very dear love that felt sometimes almost like a romance, but it wasn’t burdened by that, if you know what I mean. It was clear, and it was just someone I loved. It didn’t feel burdened by anything — it just felt burdened by his death. I was just so glad to have known him. That’s how it felt when I was writing it and that’s how it feels to me know.
“Friend” was written over two years. I was doing other poems at the same time, but I was coming back to this person and this death. I don’t know if this comes through, but I felt that it was a sort of longing, but it was a peaceful longing. And I felt like if he walked into this room right now I would just be plain glad to see him, and … ah! And this has to do with this interview — there wasn’t a father thing there. It was a brother thing. And because there was no eroticism, and there was no father — and sometimes those could go together, I’m afraid — it was more peaceful. I miss him terribly. I miss him in the poems. I love him. It was something I feel I needed to write, but I didn’t feel tragic — I felt “Oh, I miss you.”
That comes through in the poems. Partially because there’s a certainty about feeling loved —
— so there’s no anxiety, unlike some of the father-related poems, which are anxious. You’re right that these don’t feel that way. I feel particularly moved by the poem “Then,” when the speaker feels the sudden loss of the presence of the dead one: “Then no friend, no you / under the subway light no you.” Then that absent figure seems to merge with the figure of a panhandler: “wanting a hand / asking anyone / Can you help me to speak?” I’m moved by the way that dialogue isn’t just “Can you help me,” but rather “Can you help me to speak?”
Though the loved one is gone and isn’t there, he still haunts the mind and soul of the speaker, and then the last poem is “You Speak.” The voice of the beloved dead at last comes through clearly. It’s deeply triumphant because the sequence really begins and ends with the certainty of love. “Friend” begins with a poem about Shackleton, which ends with the lines: “Later that night, in my room / looking into the mirror, to tell the truth I was loved. / I looked right through into nothing.” There’s that sense, too, of not being threatened by the “nothing.”
Exactly. I’m so glad that comes through. Because I felt that. And I didn’t know else to put it. But it didn’t shake me — I was peaceful.
It’s really beautiful. And then this final poem brings that presence back, and comes full circle to love. And to the feeling of being loved. I would love to hear it.
[JV reads “You Speak.” ]
I love that ending. It’s so surprising.
It’s sort of a mishmash of Tolstoy. You know, the train from Anna Karenina? It came to me as the train that Anna Karenina threw herself under, “already having forgiven / everything, forward & backward.” It came to me that even that act was peaceful — even something like that! That was no part of our story, of course. But then the train is saying — and I can’t defend these things at all — but my shift of image is to Levin, proposing to his sweetheart, and he writes on a tablecloth, “Will you marry me?” They’re at a big party, and I think it’s Kitty he’s going to marry. I’ve always loved that scene, and I imagine Tolstoy doing that. At any rate, that’s how that all comes in, and I don’t think it matters that anybody knows that. Or I hope it doesn’t.
I haven’t actually read Anna Karenina, so for me it was purely weird.
Oh good. But the weird worked?
The weird worked because there’s a train earlier in the sequence, very briefly. One of my friends who read this chapbook pointed it out to me. In the earlier poem “Isn’t there something?” there’s the line “Something / in me like trains leaving.” So my friend felt this lovely little stitch connecting it to the end.
Wonderful what the mind will do and you don’t even know it. I never noticed that one until this second. I’m glad that the associations worked. God knows where they come from!
A 2015 Pew Fellow in the Arts, Brian Teare is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, and the American Antiquarian Society.