Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Peter Streckfus and Jean Valentine
By Lisa Russ SpaarNovember 22, 2014
Errings by Peter Streckfus
Pilgrims by Jean Valentine
IN AN ESSAY honoring her friend and sister poet Adrienne Rich in the Spring 2006 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review, Jean Valentine said of Rich that “she was pretty much beyond prizes or dis-prizes: I just don’t think those things have ever interested her much, for herself or for anyone else.” The same might be said of Jean Valentine. Although she has been much lauded during her lifetime (she is the author of 12 full-length collections of poetry, the first of which, Dream Barker, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 1965, and her many awards include the National Book Award for Poetry, the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets, and a prize for exceptional literary achievement from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), she is in many ways a “poet’s poet,” riding a bit under the po-biz radar despite a legion of ardent readers of all ages. She has always kept the focus on poetry rather than notoriety. Ron Silliman, who has written eloquently about Valentine, calls her career “relatively subdued.” He goes on to say that
in over a quarter century of visiting New York, where she’s made her home, for readings, talks, conferences, I’ve never — not once — heard a New York poet ever mention her name. For her sense of “presence” there, she might as well live in Montana.
“Perhaps the reason there has been little critical discussion on the work of Jean Valentine should be obvious,” writes Kazim Ali in Jean Valentine: This-World Company, a collection of essays paying tribute to Valentine, edited by Ali and John Hoppenthaler and published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012. “What do you say about work that traffics so sublimely in the half-said, the unsaid, more than that (or less than that?) the half-thought-of, the still unarticulated, ever evanescent?” Adrienne Rich puts it this way:
Looking into a Jean 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. This is a poetry of the highest order, because it lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn’t approach in any other way.
Valentine turned 80 earlier this year (keeping good company with other intrepid artists born in 1934, among them Mark Strand, Joan Didion, Judi Dench, Leonard Cohen, and Sonia Sanchez) and has continued to publish steadily since her first book appeared at the age of 31, most recently a full-length collection, Break the Glass (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), as well as Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, A Reading by Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine (Alice James, 2012) and a chapbook, [The ship], (Red Glass Books, 2012). The Ali/Hoppenthaler volume includes pieces by admiring, discerning readers such as Brenda Hillman, Mark Doty, Brian Teare, Amy Newman, and Dorothy Barresi. As Ali writes in the introduction, “with each passing year, [Jean Valentine] seems more and more the poet of exactly our moment — one concerned with material immediacy, the physical experiences of the body and the uncharted ineffable realms equally.”
What can a brief look at Valentine’s second book of poems, Pilgrims, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1969, suggest about the luminous, five decades’ worth of work of Jean Valentine — its obsessions, its changes, its tangents, its experiments, its trajectories? As my friend David Wojahn said to me recently regarding this Los Angeles Review of Books column (pairing a second book of poems written at least 20 years ago with a recently published second poetry book), the undertaking really involves writing about four books, not two, because it is almost impossible to write about a poet’s second book in a meaningful manner without looking at the inaugural work that preceded it.
Dudley Fitts selected Jean Valentine’s first book for the Yale Younger Poets prize, and in his foreword to Dream Barker, Fitts, who refers, in the manner of that era, to Valentine as “Miss Valentine” (despite the fact that she was married at the time to the historian James Chace), praises the volume for the way it renews “the proper themes of the lyric — youth, passion, loss, the human outrage, death” with a “quirkily singular intelligence, a fusion of wit and tenderness, subserved by an unusual accuracy of pitch and rightness of tone.” Compared to the repletely spare, “fragmented,” and syntactically daring work that most readers probably associate today with Jean Valentine, many of the poems in Dream Barker, by contrast, frequently work in sentences, received forms, a longish, often pentameter line, and strophic passages about the speaker’s own life, family, and environs. One gets a New Englandly whiff of Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, in poems like “To Salter’s Point,”
Here in Framingham, black, unlikely
Wheel spoking into mild Republican townships,
I have come to where the world drops off
Into an emptiness that cannot bear
Or lacks the center to compel
The barest sparrow feather’s falling.
Maybe our mortal calling
Is, after all, to fall
Regarded by some most tender care:
But here, the air
Has grown too thin: the world drops off
That could imagine Heaven, or so much care …,
And Valentine did in fact sit in on a workshop with the older poet when she was at Radcliffe. But as Fitts suggests, there is, well, a wonkiness to even the most “stately” poems, an energy sexual, linguistic, oneiric, and experimental. And a few of the poems, such as “Adam and Eve: Poem on Folded Paper,” are harbingers of the material innovations to come:
We dream of saving what
Can’t touch through this glass
Pain that cuts the green world
Down, derry down with my true
Loving the one human voice we
Heard myself answer in a
Dream now, Adam, and wake to find no
The world’s a dance of spiders against this
And pain is their condition.
Even a person unable to read would recognize a striking change between the shapes of the poems in Dream Barker (longer, strophic, fuller) and those in Pilgrims, which appeared four years later, in 1969. Few poems in the second book extend beyond one page, and their syntax is more often than not fragmented, inverted, subverted, or interrupted. Front-on meditation on personal experience, however feisty or iconoclastic, is here replaced by fabular, mythic subjects and elliptical and/or figurative suggestion, as in the dendritic, nervy, winter-threaded imperative sexuality and immediacy of “Woods”:
Dearest darling woodenhead
I love you
I can taste you
in bed laughing
come Teach I love your
crab, you angel!
feel me on the palm of your hand?
all the thin trees
are hanging this morning ready to fuzz,
high birds I can’t see are whistling,
winter’s dripping down
faster and faster and
faster. And not to death.
The admonition to listen at the close of this poem, and in the poems in Pilgrims, in general, signals Valentine’s evolution into a poet of compression and of intimate attention and of strange, wondrous soundings. Of waiting. As C. D. Wright puts it in a wonderful pamphlet, Jean Valentine Abridged: writing a word, changing it, published by Brian Teare’s intrepid micropress Albion Books (2011):
When I read Jean Valentine’s poems, I fill up with questions, spill over with emotion. I cease, in some way, to think. At least the din of thinking dies back. … A great silence is anterior to what gets said, so that what is said, must by necessity be put down, expressed.
The pilgrims of the title poem are waiting, too (“Standing there they began to grow skins / dappled as trees, alone in the flare / of their own selves”), but there is nothing passive or stalled about this kind of pausing. Rather, the attentiveness feels revolutionary, unsentimental — refusing patent answers in linguistic feats that call us to the poem, to the poet, and to the blighted, witnessed and witnessing world:
… and some lay smoking, smoking,
and some burned up for good,
and some waited,
over each other’s merciful shoulders,
only high in a sudden January thaw
or safe a second in some unsmiling eyes
they’d known always
Why are we in this life.
While it may be true that winning prizes for making poems can create a culture in which the attainment of attention becomes more important than paying the attention necessary for creating meaningful art, awards like the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize provide emerging writers with validation, inviting them to move forward with experimentation, risk, and the work they really need to be writing. We see this in poets like Adrienne Rich, for instance. Peter Streckfus won the “Yale Younger,” as it is often called, in 2003 for The Cuckoo, selected by Louise Glück. As with pathbreaker Valentine, Streckfus’s poems work the borders between nonsense and new sense, and this first book is full of pilgrims on journeys mythical, imagined, oneiric, political, and fiercely, intelligently anachronistic. As with Hieronymus Bosch’s ecstatic Garden of Earthly Delights, the viewer/reader moves with the poems’ speakers (part T’ang monk, part Virgil, part Wild West trailblazer, sometimes morphing into bird, dunghill, mustard seed) through a realm in which scale is distorted and the landscape full of temporal paradoxes and surprises. “Ode,” for instance, in an I Ching–stick handful of lines, moves from the minute to the epic, the personal to the political, in a frisson of answerless clarity:
The most beautiful thing in my life today. A nut brown flea
floating in the middle of a lake underlain with white flowers.
My bowl of tea.
The armor glistens, its equine head and legs stammer
in this new element, knocked by arrow or hammer
that fatal moment in the field.
Streckfus’s second collection, Errings, appeared in 2014 as part of the Poets Out Loud series of the Fordham University Press. While The Cuckoo dazzled with its brilliance and mastery of voice, this second book dazzles with its vulnerability, its wonder at the fluidity between animal and human, life and death (“neither alive nor dead, both and neither, / nini-funi in Japanese, two-but-not-two” in “Body of Dreams” and “it we you he she” in “Body of Fish”), technology and the natural world — the world with its subtlety, holes, and open spaces. “I make this poem, luminous,” Streckfus writes in the elegy “Videos of Fish,” “hollow channels, to give you a place to occupy.”
Perhaps it is the death of the speaker’s father that allows Streckfus to move from the densely textured scapes of his first book and into poems aerated by liminal “bardo” spaces (“Tibetan in origin — a gap that can serve as a bridge, / An open span filled with an atmosphere of suspension”), a terroir explored and enacted in the powerful title poem, “Erring,” in which Streckfus, as he tells us in the notes to the book, “adapts language and typewritten pages from Two Golden Earrings, an unpublished manuscript by Robert Streckfus (1921–2009), c. 1957–59 and 1978–79.” In “Patrimony,” the speaker writes, “When I declared myself a poet, you handed me the pages of your book to finish and make public,” and so “earrings” become “errings,” a ghosted erasure/dictation/distillation/“Dissolution and coming into being.” The book, in fact, seems a kind of meta-breviary of discovering “new rules” for new losses, and one central trope for this is “the bridge,” which allows the territories of presence and absence, the living and the lost (dead fathers, drowned siblings), to keep fluid their exchanges:
And let there by just one instance of “floating bridge,”
whether as such or in phrases like “floating
bridge of dreams,” the title of the last chapter
of The Tale of Genji,
which leaves the young Ukifune
and the conclusion of the tale
in uncertainty. In short, to swim
in the world of illusion.
Let such rooms and structures
stand as if open to the air at different heights,
linked to each other by rickety bridges or notched planks.
(from “A Bridge, the Pilgrims”).
This bridge, of course, is the poem — in this case, Streckfus’s poems, which strike me as, in this second book more than in the first, overtly about the you, the Reader, the you that is also an I, and so the manuscript is full of spaces as much for listening (“Hush now, quiet. Listen”) as for speaking (“Love. Love, couldn’t you see? / No, you said. No. Tell me. Tell me.”). This reciprocity owes to the generosity of Streckfus’s vision, which accepts the culpable and illuminating slippage between “earrings” and “errings” with equal tenderness.
In “Invisible Architecture,” another inimitable innovator, Barbara Guest, writes:
An invisible architecture upholds the poem while allowing a moment of relaxation for the unconscious.. A period of emotional suggestion, of lapse,
of reliance on the conscious substitute words pushed toward the bridge of the architecture.
The second books of both Jean Valentine and Peter Streckfus reveal an opening up to and heeding of the “invisible poem” behind all wording. “There is always something within poetry that desires the invisible,” Guest writes, a truth that both Pilgrims and Errings woo and to which they are yearningly attuned: the poem behind the poem, the poem completed in the reader.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.
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