(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

The Cradle of the Real Life is Jean Valentine’s eighth volume of poems. Her first book, Dream Barker, won the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1965. Her recent works include Growing Darkness, Growing Light (1997) and The River at Wolf (1992). This newest collection demonstrates the qualities that have come to hallmark Valentine’s work. Brief, spare poems suggest their metaphors by indirection and ellipsis, trusting the reader to intuit the rich veins on which the poems’ roots feed.

The title of the book comes from the theologian Martin Buber. In the epigraph to the volume, Buber is quoted as defining the effects of what he calls “the heaven of Thou,” which has the power to protect him from “winds of causality” and the “whirlpool of fate.” That heaven leaves him where he is free from deception—in the “cradle of the Real Life.” By implication, the poet too celebrates the heaven created by the “other”—all those others who free the artist from deception that would cloud her work. These things are suggested by the first poem in the volume, “The Pen,” in which Valentine first pictures a small, green lizard on a sandy road and then a pen that “writes by itself.” As is often the case in these poems, juxtaposition asks the reader to determine the relationship between the two images. The lizard and pen are equally unselfconscious, Valentine suggests, like the artist herself, who somehow knows what she knows and can be a means for making poetry as the bow on the strings (another of the poem’s images) is a means to music.

The poems of the first part of the volume find much of their theme in death and loss. Some, like “Elegy for Jane Kenyon,” do so directly; others are more oblique. The Kenyon poem cites a conversation between the dying poet Jane Kenyon and her poet-husband Donald Hall in which they discuss the writing table of the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson. What was it made of? Hall says it was made of iron, but Kenyon corrects him. It was made of flesh, she says, reminding the reader that poems are born of human experience.

Two of the poems in this section deal with “B.” In “Mother Bones,” a poem of just five lines, B. is dragging a bag containing grass cuttings and his mother’s bones up a stone staircase. The speaker concludes by noting that “you can’t grow/ grass from cuttings”—any more, readers might conclude, than one can grow a mother from a sack of bones, regardless of how one clings to them. In the next poem, “They lead me,” B. is apparently in a hospital, attended by a “lovely nurse.” The speaker of the poem seems to be quoting some official voice in describing the nurse and the possibility that B. will need her. The speaker and the nurse share sugary comments and part in their mutual public roles. In the second half of the poem, the speaker requests a dream about her marriage. She dreams of an ink-stained hand, hers, and his hand stained with paint, both of them “gone where/ nothing joins.” Valentine frequently uses wide spaces mid-line in these poems, usually, as here, to suggest disjuncture. The minimal punctuation similarly serves to underscore these poems as fragments, slivers, units that have been peeled and pared so unsparingly that there is no longer space even for a period at the end of the sentence.

The dead are like a burden that the bearer both clings to and desires to be free from. In “Labrador” the speaker is carrying a heavy dog on her journey. When she puts him down, he puts his foot into a trap tied to train tracks. The speaker cannot save him, and the dog refuses to save himself by chewing off his foot, nor will he let the speaker near him. The dog is caught in the trap, but the poem suggests that the situation itself is a trap in which the speaker might also be caught, helpless, with a train coming. Whatever she may feel about the situation, she must leave the dog. “Running for a train” suggests a similar situation. As she runs for the train, the speaker carries “an older woman” on her back while she must deny help to an even older woman waiting beside the track. The engineer is a young woman who gazes out “implacably/ and keeps on driving.” Although it is possible to see these burdens as being imposed by the dead, the issue may be more complex than that, as the speaker in this poem suggests by noting that she knows the engineer and the older woman who is even now being left behind. As if all the actors in this scene are part of herself, she knows even the phlegmatic boy who is watching.

Other poems in this section elegize...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)