Reviewed by Matthea Harvey
In Little Boat , her 11th collection, 2004 National Book Award–winner Jean Valentine continues her delicate lyric investigations. Her minimalist, elided style is like the quiet concentration of a bank robber trying to crack a safe. Doors spring open throughout this book, usually where we least expect them: “I sit underneath the cottonwoods—/Friends,/ what am I meant to be doing?/ Nothing. The door is fallen down/ inside my open body/ where all the worlds touch.”
In “The Eleventh Brother” (a poem based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale “The Wild Swans”), Valentine focuses on a princess who, in order to change her brothers from swans back into princes, must weave 11 coats made out of nettles, and all the while, remain mute. Valentine is, after all, a poet who seeks insight and metamorphosis, but will wait for it patiently: “your sister had finished weaving your other arm,/ she dove down to give it to you// through the gray water. You couldn't/ take it. You wouldn't.” That ending—the noncomittal swing door of “either/or” is characteristic of Valentine's embrace of contradiction and complication.
When Valentine speaks in the voice of “outsider artist” Ray Masterson in “The Artist in Prison” (Masterson started making miniature embroideries while incarcerated, using threads unraveled from other inmates' socks), not only does her care and precision match Masterson's own meticulous work, but she moves beyond ekphrastic appreciation to an unexpected discovery: “I will trade// what—whole/ days when I was free// red shadow on the inside of my skull// for socks/ for threads.” Imagining one's way inside the brain naturally conjures up Dickinson, as does her use of exclamation marks (outbursts that combine exuberance and despair: “—Not see you!”) and her intimate conversations with God (here, Jesus). In “This Side,” the speaker describes carrying an antenna around like Mercury's staff, hoping to receive an indeterminate message, then adds with wonderful emphasis, “And I left/ a bowl of milk outside the threshold the night/ the souls of the dead return, & in the morning/ licked it where he licked.”
In “Strange Light,” a section of poems whose titles all begin with “Hospital,” the speaker is situated in the uncertainties of both life and death, present and past, euphoria and despair: “Us standing there in the past/ as we were/ in life/ you turning and turning my coat buttons.” This is how she leaves us, too—gloriously and terrifyingly unmoored. (Oct.)
Matthea Harvey's third book of poems, Modern Life, is coming in October from Graywolf. Her first children's book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, is due out from Soft Skull also in October.