Poet Plumbs the Archive of Memory — Hers and Ours
A Contrary review by Shevi Berlinger

	Little Boat is the most recent book of poetry by the American writer Jean Valentine, who was born in 1934. I first heard of the book over fresh mint tea in New York. My breakfast companion had an unusual offer – we would buy one copy and divide it (a daring contract because we had only met that morning). After the suspense of waiting several weeks for my turn with it, I now have it to half-own. And after each new read of its poems, I feel I never quite own their meanings, either. 

        Valentine appears to be a writer in assured conversation with herself in this collection—her tenth—but there are few recognizable resting spots throughout her concentrated imagery. Because her poems seem to spring so deeply from a private vocabulary, they seem infinitely more revealing than if they were more literal. With the frequent absence of clear references or narrative, the poems bore forward still, posing detailed questions of religion, mortality, and nature.

        The book is divided into sections that could be read independently of one another, the same feeling that the poems themselves impart. The sections are anchored by the poem “La Chalupa, the Boat,” which offers a sense of expansiveness as the poet writes: “No, not drifting, I am poling/ my way into my life,” and ends with the stanza:

        Still, there was still
        the little boat, the chalupa
        you built once, slowly, in the yard, after school—

        The collection seems to exist, in part, after school, where memories speak without the structure of an institution. Turning around the corner of each section is sometimes disorienting and surprising, but often, sheer loveliness moors the poems, as in “The Afterlife Poem”; like many of the poems in Little Boat, it comes to life when read out loud, when distance is displaced by breath:

        Jesus said,
        But I am “alive”!

        It’s the same material,
        but lighter,
        summer stuff,

        Akhmatova’s hair . . . 

        So infused is it with explorations of light and darkness, Little Boat could nearly be constructed of windowpanes. As she explores, Valentine’s voice moves briskly from misty to imperative. In the poem “In Memory,” Valentine asks:

        You. Did you ever think
        you could do something useful?
        You know.

        When Valentine describes bright moments, such as in “The Poet,” we hear “the little sounds, &/ lights, & everything, alive & veering, fun!” The exclamation points throughout the volume may be unnecessary, given the boldness of her voice, but it’s precious to see what she considers worthy of revealing at all. Indeed, Valentine seems to be the ultimate curator of a gargantuan archive of memories, many of which remain in storage. In this way, perhaps we could all find something in common with her.

        Like stretching on the floor, reading Little Boat may also offer the chance to feel the muscles and bones that we are made of, one by one, although we cannot see them. 

Shevi Berlinger was managing editor of Two Lines: World Writing in Translation. She teaches in New York and is at work on a book of poetry.

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Little Boat
Jean Valentine
2007, Wesleyan






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