A number of commenters on contemporary poetry in America have noted that the last few decades have produced a trend toward accessibility. Writers such as Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, and Sharon Olds, to name only a few, have contributed to the trend, which has resulted in events such as poetry slams and Collins’s radio readings on Prairie Home Companion. There’s a comfort in such accessibility.
Jean Valentine, however, is not in the accessibility school. Her stripped-down poems (one critic has said they seem more like notebook jottings than poems) demand that readers give to each of her few words the same careful attention she used to select them. Her spare style, her slant images, her unconventional punctuation (which sometimes includes extra spaces between words in a line) may remind one of Emily Dickinson and explain why many call Valentine a “poet’s poet.” The minimalist poems of Little Boat, like those in Valentine’s earlier books, draw the reader into a fragile and dreamlike world where the poet considers subjects such as love and death. Poems like these do not offer the reader many conclusions about their subjects; instead, they invite the reader to participate intuitively to discover the author’s vision.
The opening poem of the volume, “La Chalupa, the Boat,” offers a sample of Valentine’s approach. In the opening lines, the speaker is a young person drifting in “la chalupa.” The little blue boat is painted with flowers, roses, and lilies. The second stanza revises: “No, not drifting, I am poling/ my way into my life. It seems/ like another life.” From this point on, the poem exchanges present tense for past. Evidently the life the speaker poled herself into was some time ago. The third stanza suggests past obstacles in that life by listing “walls of the mind” and even “cliffs of the mind,” “seven deaths” and finally “seven bread-offerings.” The last image seems to evoke more worship, even blessing, than frustration. The explanation may lie in the vessel that carried the speaker into life, the boat that the last line identifies as the little boat “you built once, slowly, in the yard, after school.” The presence of that “you” in the last line gives the poem a surprising direction that often appears at the end of Valentine’s poems. Here it suggests how the speaker was able to deal with life’s walls and cliffs, for she has set out in a craft that “you” built carefully, long before. Such reading is a little like what a hiker might do if he or she discovers a skeletondry, bleached bonesin the woods and reimagines the animal with flesh and hide. Valentine’s poems give enough of bone and sinew that the discoverer will understand the omitted flesh; at the same time, they offer the stark beauty of the bare bone itself.
Several of the poems in this volume allude to graphic artists. “The Artist in Prison” is designated “for Ray Materson,” whose work as an embroiderer of miniatures during his prison sentence has brought him considerable public attention. Valentine writes the poem in Materson’s voice, but it becomes a statement of how all artists work, poets included. The speaker begins by offering to trade cigarettes for other prisoners’ socks, so that he can use the threads to embroider tiny pictures, as in fact Materson has done. He then goes on to trade days of his freedom and even “red shadow/ on the inside of my skull” for the socks that are the medium of his art. The poem thus becomes not only a tribute to Materson but also a description of how all artists work, trading their freedom for whatever they need to bring the red shadows of their artistic vision to life.
Several of the poems in the first section of this book deal with loss, prison, and death. “Photographs at her Wake,” for example, pictures the life of the dead woman through images as small as the tortoiseshell combs she wore, as tiny as hair under a page of a phone book. In “Lord of the world!” one whose hand has been found to be “caught in the prisoner’s hand” prays for protection. Many of the poems of this section suggest the speaker responding to loss. In “The father was a carrier,” the speaker laments the loss of a man who carried everythingperhaps all the burdens of his lifein five buckets. By the end of the poem, he has morphed into all men who are heavy-laden. In “The Eleventh Brother (2),” Valentine builds on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the sister who must weave shirts for all her eleven brothers to return them from swan to human form. The...
(The entire section is 1869 words.)