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Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003

By Jean Valentine

Original and Current  Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Dilruba Ahmed writes:

“If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it.  Is there any other way?”

Dickinson to Higginson

After reading Jean Valentine’s Door in the Mountain, New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003, I have little hope of ever reattaching my head to my body.  Like her literary predecessor, Valentine is a poet of great intensity, brevity, restraint, and lyricism. 

To read Jean Valentine’s work is to enter a dream-space, one filled with the familiar and the strange, both bliss and terror—an emotional and psychological place where voices and visions ring true even as they pose the impossible or refuse to offer resolution.

In Valentine’s writing, dreams become a portal to the workings of the conscious and unconscious mind.  Of the role of dreams in her poetry, Jean Valentine states in a Ploughshares interview with Amy Newman, “Sometimes I'm using dream as a way of almost trying to translate experiences and thoughts that I have that I think might come to the reader more easily if they said they were dreams.” 

While reading Door in the Mountain, I was fascinated to see Valentine’s more recent poems juxtaposed with her first collection, Dream Barker, which was originally published in 1965 as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize.  While both sections—along with the collection as a whole—take dreams as a chief theme, we can see a significant contrast between the poet’s earliest publication (which contains poems with formal rhyme schemes, syntactically complete sentences, and full punctuation) and her later work, which is characteristically spare.  In “New Poems,” Valentine’s phrases appear as tips of icebergs:  dense, fragmented, Sapphic passages. 

Part of the power of Valentine’s work rests in her artful use of white space, compressed language, and dream-like, unpunctuated phrases.  In “Happiness (3),” a poem of a dozen lines and nearly as much white space, the speaker makes a wintertime graveside visit to her companion’s parents.

The moment you turned to me on W. 4th St.
Your gentleness to me

The hard winter grass here under my shoes
The frost

I knelt in the frost to your parents

                                                            The warm

light on the right hand side of your face
The light on the Buddha’s eyelids

I knelt to my parents
Their suffering        How


much sleep there was in sleep      How no
suffering is lost.

Faced with the specter of mortality, Valentine’s speaker is filled with tenderness, humility, and gratitude.  Here, the “gentleness” of the speaker’s companion is juxtaposed with the “hard winter grass” underfoot.  The speaker’s literal action of kneeling “in the frost” before the gravestone morphs into the spiritual or religious action of bowing down in recognition of her own parents’ sacrifices: “I knelt to my parents / Their suffering….”

But this kneeling is also a gesture of supplication, and the fragmented “How” creates multiple resonances:  How could this happen?  How do we make sense of mortality?  What is the role of suffering in our lives?  The word “how” both questions and accuses, hanging in abeyance as we register two full lines of white space.  Valentine closes the poem with the stark recognition of death’s finality, but the speaker remains hopeful that suffering can instruct us:  “How // much sleep there was in sleep     How no / suffering is lost.”  Still, the circular definition of “sleep” as consisting of “sleep” reveals an inability to truly grasp death, and the placement of the word “no” at the end of the penultimate line strikes me as a refusal to acknowledge impermanence: no, this can’t happen.

Like many of Valentine’s later poems, “Happiness (3)” is a poem of density, brevity, and carved white space.  Haunting, tender, and terrifying by turn, the silences here are palpable.

In this book of collected work, many other poems grapple with mortality:

She would long / to dig herself into the ground, her only / daughter’s ashes / in her nose     in her mouth… (“In the Burning Air”)

I cannot hold him: he is dead. (“Kin”)

I could go / anywhere.  I could go to where you are. / I lie under the bank, my face on a wall of wet grass. / I can’t go anywhere, No such thing my dear. (“The Father”)

Now a year after your death, fish-mother, skate / you swim up off the surface of the earth…face / under all the pieces of light, / how could I get to you? (“Skate”)

In some poems, Valentine confronts nightmarish fears without necessarily offering resolution:

You drew my head….and even the skull / is turned away // no eyes. (“You drew my head”)

Sleep drops its nets for monsters as old as the Flood (“Sleep Drops Its Nets”)

Valentine’s speakers grapple with helplessness in the face of suffering:  “And my friend is in pain and there’s nothing I can do, / Suffering is everywhere intense, and if / We make pain ourselves, who can help it?” (“Sheep”). 

Her writing also depicts a desire for intimacy while conveying the inexplicable gaps between people: 

Our ghosts bob and hug in the air where we meet (“To a friend”)

I ask for a dream / about my marriage…My ink-stained hand / his paint-smudged hand // gone     where / nothing joins (“They lead me”)

Valentine’s poetry tackles faith and doubt in poems such as “I came to you,” which begins in explanation, “I came to you / Lord, because of / the fucking reticence / of this world,” and concludes with a repeated exhortation, “Lord Come / We were sad on the ground,” and the epistolary poem “Dearest”:   “…to come in time / into this world, unlikely, small, / bloody, shiny, is all, is God’s good will / I think, I turn to you, / and fail, and turn, // as the day widens // and we don’t know what to do.”

And yet, in the midst of fear, uncertainty, and struggle, Valentine’s speaker takes to heart Rilke’s injunction from “Archaic Torso of Apollo”:  “You must change your life.”  In a “field of graves” with “sunk, unmarked, green edges of hammered granite / sharp as a shoulder blade,” the speaker vehemently wishes for change:  “…God break me out / of this stiff life I’ve made” (“Forces”).  This movement beyond the “stiff life” involves risk and unanswered questions:  “Every day you move farther outside / the outlines, kinder, more dangerous. / Where will you be going. / Who will the others be” (“Dufy Postcard”).  Valentine’s poems convey moments of hope, love, and an intimacy equivalent to God.

The doctors tell me, ‘Swim./ You are beginning, moving on; yes, / trailing his side, still / amazed at our own body apart…’ (“After Elegies (2)”)

Dove, it’s time for peace, / Time to taste the round mountains, the white and green, / and the dusk rose of relationship, again, / for the first time, it’s time to take off our clothes, / and the fortress around our eyes, to touch our first fingers, / you and I, like God, across everything. (“The Summer Was Not Long Enough”)

 A day a year ago last summer / God filled me with himself, like gold, inside, / deeper inside than marrow. // This close to God this close to you…..Our second life. (“The River at Wolf”)

While some of Valentine’s poetry gestures to the public world—with poems for Matthew Shephard as well as elegies to fellow writers James Wright, Lynda Hull, Jane Kenyon, and Robert Lowell, the gift of Valentine’s Door in the Mountain is that it helps us to uncover “the hidden way of each of us, buried.”

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book of poems, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for poetry. Ahmed’s writing has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, and The Normal School. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives near Philadelphia. For more information, visit her website at www.dilrubaahmed.com. (Photo credit: Mike Drzal)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • William Heyen for Shoah Train
  • Donald Justice for Collected Poems
  • Carl Phillips for The Rest of Love
  • Cole Swensen for Goest

Poetry Judges that Year: Lynn Emanuel, James Galvin,
Naomi Shihab Nye, Michael Waters, Al Young

The Year in Literature:

  • Walking to Martha's Vineyard by Franz Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Ted Kooser was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Jean Valentine (1934- ) was born in Chicago, IL.
  • Adrienne Rich has said of Valentine’s work, “The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet. This is a poetry of the highest order, because it lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn’t approach in any other way.”

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