Review by Ellen Miller-Mack
BREAK THE GLASS
by Jean Valentine
Copper Canyon Press
Post Office Box 271
Port Townsend, WA 98368
2010, 81 pp., $22.00
I often read Jean Valentine’s poems before I go to sleep, ever-hopeful my dreams will catch a breeze through the door opened to worlds beyond. Or to retrieve in dreamland the crystal bowl given to my grandmother in 1919 and place it on my kitchen table in the morning. Maybe the stage sets won’t break down before I have a chance to look around; a spirit might stay for coffee.
Valentine is welcomed, adored and fluent in this and other worlds. With her beautiful open face and open arms she receives gifts from the dream world, and reaches for seemingly ordinary objects as they orbit, “all night long while / the night train / pulls me on in my dream / like a needle” in the poem “Even all night long.” Or she may go to “…a hotel in another star” (“If a Person Visits Someone in a Dream, in Some Cultures the Dreamer Thanks Them”).
Each poem a world, each world with its own ways. The poem as it floats on the page is a visual wonder. Punctuation and syntax build organically under Valentine’s authority. As you catch your breath (you’ve traveled from point A to point Z and back), look at these wonders and study the houses where these poems live. Commas and dashes as downspouts to catch rain, or iron railing on the stoop, or crown molding. Some poems have asterisks separating sections, unexpected ampersands and beguiling surprises. White space sings alive, awakens you with gratitude for Valentine’s artistry.
She writes with empathy and insight of women who are locked in prison. “In prison” is a lament, a prayer for the women “in prison / without being accused// or reach your family / or have a family” which catches the reader in her throat with unusual and moving syntax. “Or reach your family” could mean the family has no reach behind the prison‘s razor wire as well as “you can’t reach your family.” In this poem “family,” a potent word, muffles under layers of absence. Valentine names blights and ultimately addresses the poem to “you / who the earth was for.” These two lines evoke a spiritual imperative for inclusiveness, to accept and honor that all among the living are free to love and be loved. You cannot be a jaded reader, nor can political views intrude upon the sorrow of this moment. Your defenses fall away.
“The Young Mother” is a poem of resistance and defiance, beginning with “Milk called out of the breast”, and could it be–the origin of breast milk is earth’s orgasm? Yes, and it is a startling, brilliantly conceived event. The milk, however, is “unreceived.” Where is the “just-born mouth”? The innocence, the surprise, the emotionality of the last three stanzas is astonishing:
I’m sad, Warden
Are you sad
All you people looking out from the stern
Of the white ship Withholding
–I’ll take my babies
The book’s title, Break the Glass, is central to the poem “If a Person Visits Someone in a Dream, in Some Cultures the Dreamer Thanks Them”, dedicated to the memory of poet Reginald Shepherd.
Can you breathe all right?
Break the glass shout
break the glass force the room
break the thread Open
the music behind the glass.
Fracture the encapsulating glass and emerge, stay alive. In a section of “Lucy” (initially a chapbook published by Sarabande Books): “When writing came back to me / I prayed with lipstick / on the windshield / as I drove.” Transcendence and staying alive. And be soothed; be enthralled with music (soul music). Valentine sings for peace for every person and creature. You hear it when you read her poems. She gets you where you live, where we all live, in the deep regions of consciousness. She gathers us together.
The poem, “as with rosy steps the morn,” dedicated to the memory of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, gifted mezzo-soprano who died at fifty-two, begins with an image evoking a childlike drawing of the earth: “Everyone / on the other side of the earth / standing upside down, listening,” and ends with exquisitely wrought lines, perhaps meant for a friend as she is leaving this world, with loving guidance to go beyond language to melody with her luminous love:
Don’t listen to the words—
They’re only little shapes for what you’re saying,
They’re only cups if you’re thirsty, you aren’t thirsty.
Valentine convincingly communicates with her dead: beloved Reginald Shepherd, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and one addressed in the poem “You ask”:
Could we have coffee? –No, my truth,
I’m still on this side.
Perhaps the dream world and the ghost world share semipermeable membranes, but ghosts seem to enter our world, moving about purposefully, yet weary of explaining themselves to the frightened or defended. In his poem, “A Textbook of Poetry,” Jack Spicer wrote: “The ghosts the poems were written for are the ghosts of the poems. We have it secondhand. They cannot hear the noise they have been making.” If anyone can hear them it is Jean Valentine. Maybe she does write at times for her ghosts and it seems that she is can share space with “ghosts of poems.” “On the bus” begins, “the ghost-bus travels along beside us.” Maybe they inhabit the white space in her poems. And she hears what Spicer insists the poet must hear with the utmost clarity: “the noise they have been making.” In “Ghost Elephants,” the poet writes “at night I heard you breathing,” a single, vibrating line. At the end she asks, “Ghost elephant, / reach down, / cross me over—.”
Today I begin a doll-making project. As I gather materials–alphabet beads, glue sticks, rhinestone earrings, foil stars, buttons, feathers and old pillowcases–I am struck, viscerally, by the boundless love poured into “Lucy” and Valentine’s genius for crafting it. Lucy is loved fiercely, as a doll is loved by a child. She is, though, a 3.2 million year old skeleton; she lived. She is a first mother from the Motherland of us all, Africa. “But you are my skeleton mother, / I bring you / coffee in your cemetery bed.” She is imbued with magical powers. She brought “the spider / in her web three days / dead on the window” back to life. Valentine perceives her as alive in the purest sense. She gives her all she can, and asks for more: “Did you have a cup, Lucy? / O God who transcends time, / let Lucy have a cup.”
The curves of time fit perfectly in Valentine’s hands—the continuum of millions of years is felt. She has a way of coaxing past and present into a gorgeous ring, and it fits: “when my scraped-out child died Lucy / you hold her, all the time.” Valentine achieves distillation of time and experience in her work, and those instants are like shooting stars.
Ellen Miller-Mack received an MFA in Poetry this past June from Drew University. Forthcoming are poems in 5 A.M. and Affilia and a review in the Valparaiso Poetry Review. Ellen co-authored the Real Cost of Prisons Comix, published by PM Press. She is an nurse practitioner providing primary care in a community health center in Springfield, Massachusetts. She can be contacted at: email@example.com.