cover image The Cradle of the Real Life

The Cradle of the Real Life

Jean Valentine. Wesleyan University Press, $26 (85pp) ISBN 978-0-8195-6405-4

Intensely felt, condensed and often fragmentary, Valentine's short poems struggle to wrest emotional commitments and general truths from bits of conversations, cryptic dreams and gnomic single images. This eighth collection opens with a set of short poems on erotic and elegiac themes, then offers a long sequence, ""Her Lost Book,"" that merges a caustic account of Irish immigration with a laconic feminist martyrology. Passing from Dublin to the Atlantic shore, Valentine declares, ""I want those women's lives/ rage constraints/ the poems they burned/ in their chimney throats... more than our silver or your gold art."" A one time Yale Younger Poet (Growing Darkness, Growing Light; etc.), Valentine, in her best poems, yokes clauses together to produce strange, urgent portraits of deep feelings: one such is ""Leaving,"" which closes: ""Eight years I sat on my heels in the field/ waiting for you./ I wanted to."" Seemingly indebted at times to Dickinson and Nelly Sachs, Valentine's combination of feminist themes, gritty tones and fragmented forms also recall the recent work of Adrienne Rich (one of the book's dedicatees). Yet Valentine fails to balance her clipped measures (as Rich does) against more forthright or expansive modes. Instead, her concision can make ostensibly completed poems and series read like notes for poems not yet written: ""They lead me to a/ `love nurse'...she is I am/ sugary/ melt/ and disappear."" Valentine's drive to compress can be admired, and everything she does seems urgently meant. Yet her command of form can't always equal her feeling: the result is a book at once harrowing and frustrating. (Mar.)