Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems        

By Mark Doty

Original and Current Publisher: Harper Perennial

Kiki Petrosino writes:

Long ago in poetry workshop, a professor assigned us the task of listing ten original images.  This was homework: come up with ten units of language that you think fit the definition of image.  Our professor wanted to see who, in the class, was a gifted builder.  We were all disappointed, of course.  My list came back with a slash through every entry, and question marks, besides.  Only one “true” image emerged from the exercise, and if I’m not mistaken, our professor gave it to us.  It had to do with a red bandanna tied to a wooden post, and I can still see it.

Constructing imagery in a poem is more demanding than you think.  It’s not enough simply to point at the world of the senses by saying “I hear” or “I see.”  A well-chosen image must somehow embody the act of perception.  Images are the tiny conveyors that transmit meaning in a poem, because it’s through the senses that ideas—and language—take hold of the imagination.  In his 1997 essay, “Souls on Ice,” Mark Doty writes, “Sometimes it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.”

This notion is one key to understanding Doty’s poetics.  In Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, we find a voice that continually asserts its devotion to the pursuit of image-making.  This volume, for which Doty won the NBA in 2008, gathers work from seven prior collections, as well as selections from a newer project, Theories and Apparitions.  Taken as a whole, the volume provides a marvelous introduction for those readers previously unfamiliar with this attentive, compelling lyric presence.  The poems draw much of their energy from the rigor of Doty’s metaphors, rooted as they are in precisely drawn images of “the landscape in front of us.”

I keep returning to the poem, “Chanteuse” (from Doty’s 1993 collection, My Alexandria), as particularly emblematic of Doty’s mastery of both image and metaphor.  This poem proceeds as a series of tightly-constructed tercets with a lustrous syllabic sheen (most lines are between nine and twelve syllables, which lends a measured, even quality to each unit of sound).  At the same time, the verse is awash in images that appeal to every bodily sense, and the accumulation of these images takes us on a rhapsodic journey.  This is an ode to the city of Boston, but Doty enfolds a myriad of other loves into this theme.  Take these lines from early in the piece:

             Jots of color resolve: massive parasols
            above a glimmering pond, the transit
            of almost translucent swans.  Brilliant bits

            —jewels?  slices of sugared fruit?—bloom
            into a clutch of skirts on the bridge
            above the summer boaters.  His city’s essence:

            all the hues of chintzes or makeup
            or Italian ices, all the sheen artifice
            is capable of.  Our city’s lavish paintbox.

In these stanzas, Doty’s speaker describes a Prendergast painting of Boston’s Public Garden, but he also treats us to a veritable Eden of sights and sounds.  Note the kinetic qualities conveyed by “jots of color,” the swift “transit / of almost translucent swans,” and the slower “bloom” of the skirted figures on the bridge.  Even the “slices of sugared fruit” seem to pass over the tongue, thanks to the almost granular consonant shift that softens “slices” into “sugared.”  It took me more than one reading to realize that there aren’t any colors actually named in these early stanzas—I’d been seeing all kinds of things in my mind’s eye, but not colors. Doty uses his “lavish paintbox” with discernment here, making for us a portrait of light.  We see “brilliant bits” of “almost” translucence, the traffic of “hues,” if not yet the hues themselves.  The language of this poem dazzles with an evocative imagerial “sheen” that transports us to a place of wonder.

When the poem moves to the “intimate interiors” of personal memory, the city’s magic takes on the physicality of an earthly muse.  The “chanteuse” is a “beautiful black drag queen,” whose voice unfolds themes of love that animate the poet’s remembered cityscape.  Now it’s the singer’s “sparkling ankle shoes” which “glimmer” in the space opened by the dual work of writing and remembrance.  She effectively becomes the swan that moves between the poet’s present and his past.  And it’s with this extended image of the chanteuse that Doty sweeps us into the larger concern that’s brought the whole poem into being: the painful divide between the seeming artifice of memory and the ephemeral nature of immediate, lived experience.  The vitality of Doty’s initial images prepares us for more expansive, philosophical statements at poem’s end:

            As she invented herself, memory revises
            and restores her, and the moment   
            she sang.  I think we were perfected,

            when we became her audience,
            and maybe from that moment on
            it didn’t matter so much exactly

            what would become of us.

This shift in diction comes to us like a rest within a musical score.  It’s a move that effectively grounds Doty’s metaphors within a larger lyric investigation and brings us back to the poet’s mind and heart.  As Doty remarks in “Souls on Ice,” descriptive details in poems “aren't ‘neutral,’ though they might pretend to be, but instead suggest a point of view, a stance toward what is being seen.”          

Kiki Petrosino is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in FENCE, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Louisville. (Photo credit: Philip Miller)                                          

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Robert Pinsky, Mary Jo Bang, Kimiko Hahn, Tony Hoagland, Marilyn Nelson

The Year in Literature:  

  • Time and Materials by Robert Hass and Failure by Philip Schultz both won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Kay Ryan was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Mark Doty (1953- ) was born in Maryville, TN.
  • Doty was the first American poet to win the T.S. Elliot Prize for Poetry, an award typically given to poets from the United Kingdom.

Doty reading at the 2008 National Book Award Finalists Reading

Doty accepts the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems


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Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005

By Robert Hass

Original and Current Publisher: Ecco/Harper Collins

Evie Shockley writes:

The problem with trying to write about Bob Hass’s wonderful collection, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005, comes directly out of one of its most appealing qualities: the expansive territory it covers.  It opens with a poem consisting of a single, rhymed couplet—not regularly metrical, but indebted to meter—and before we reach the last poem, we have encountered short, multi-sectioned lyrics; conversational narrative poems; long, Whitman-esque meditations; a prose poem; and a haibun, among other styles and structures.  Without his venturing much into the realms of the avant-garde or the neo-formalist, he exploits enough different possibilities for line, stanza, and syntax that the collection refuses the visual consistency that risks dullness or promises orderliness (depending on your view).

It isn’t, however, these formal matters that I most have in mind when I point to the volume’s expansiveness, but rather the book’s geographical, historical, and thematic breadth.  We move from California to Germany to Korea; from Horace to Vermeer to John Ashbery; from sex and nature to art and domesticity to death and war.  True, there is a sizable chunk of the world (the part near or below the equator) that remains beyond the scope of these poems, and they privilege what has traditionally been called “high” and “Western” culture.  But Hass works out his ideas across a pretty wide range of contexts nonetheless, and those ideas are articulated in such a generous manner as to indicate their even wider applicability.  That my own cultural landscape overlaps with his somewhat imperfectly is thus grounds for disappointment, but not complaint.

Looking back to an early career book like Praise, which I am teaching this semester, I get the impression that Hass has all along been trying to strike a certain balance between a poetry of rich, physical detail and one of transcendent, metaphysical compass.  In Time and Materials, the book’s very title suggests that here he succeeds.  He certainly achieves some measure of success with it, as the book won not only the National Book Award, but the Pulitzer Prize as well.  I am struck by the way his sometime luscious, sometimes stark descriptions provide robust scaffolding for his engagement with the conceptual. Similarly, his soaring meditations really launch the poems that might otherwise be almost heavily concrete.

For example, a poem like “Bush’s War” moves from gorgeous images to gory ones:

                                                            In May
            At the end of the twentieth century
            In the leafy precincts of Dahlem Dorf,
            South of the Grunewald, near Krumme Lanke,
            The northern spring begins before dawn
            In a racket of birdsong, when the amsels,
            Black European thrushes, shiver the sun up
            As if they were shaking a great tangle
            Of golden wire.

            . . . .

            Flash forward: firebombing of Hamburg,
            Fifty thousand dead in a single night,
            “The children’s bodies the next day
            Set in the street in rows like a market
            In charred chicken.”

He proceeds to march us through a century of war-driven massacres in Tokyo, the Katyn Woods, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, the Ukraine, and Vietnam (with Baghdad, of course, on the poem’s horizon) on the way to noticing a present-day German student with “The kind of book the young love / To love, about love in the time of war.”  This moment, and all the images and references with which he precedes it, enable him to ask the necessary questions:

            You are never not wondering how
            It happened, and these Germans, too,
            Children then, or unborn, never not
            Wondering.  Is it that we like the kissing
            And bombing together, in prospect
            At least, girls in their flowery dresses?

                        *           *           *           *

            Look at boys playing: they love
            To figure out the ways to blow things up.
            But the rest of us have to go along.
            Why do we do it?


I can’t do without that shivery golden tangle of wire anymore than I can do without the interrogation of the relationship between humanity and violence.  I don’t insist on having both the stunning image and the engagement with socio-political questions in the same poet’s work—let alone the same poem—but when I get both (as in Lucille Clifton’s work, to take the example of another National Book Award winner), I am deeply moved.

People frequently refer to Hass’s work as “intelligent,” and I can only agree.  There are various ways a poetic intelligence might be evidenced, but his curiosity about all manner of subjects and ability to draw connections among them is certainly one way.  His dry sense of humor only adds to the appeal, as here: “Hay / Is the Old English word for strike.  You strike down / Grass, I guess, when it is moan.  Mown.”  I’ll close by quoting in full a short ars poetica that not only embodies the Hass-ian poetic intelligence, but also gestures toward his important work as a translator and the “nature poetry” he is known for.  In “That Music,” he generously presents us with the kind of challenge he delights in, inviting each of us to think with him about it:

            The creek’s silver in the sun of almost August,
            And bright dry air, and last runnels of snowmelt,
            Percolating through the roots of mountain grasses
            Vinegar weed, golden smoke, or meadow rust,

            Do they confer, do the lovers’ bodies
            In the summer dusk, his break, her sleeping face,
            Confer—, does the slow breeze in the pines?
            If you were the interpreter, if that were your task. 

Do they? We may.

Evie Shockley’s collections of poetry include the new black (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming 2011), a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks. She is also author of the forthcoming critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). Poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line, Iron Horse Literary Review, esque, Talisman, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Shockley co-edits jubilat and is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. (Photo credit: Stéphane Robolin)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Charles Simic, Linda Bierds, David St. John, Vijay Seshadri, Natasha Trethewey

The Year in Literature:

  • Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Charles Simic was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Robert Hass (1941- ) was born in San Francisco, CA.
  • Hass’ book Time and Materials would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2008.

Robert Hass' 2007 National Book Award Acceptance Speech

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Splay Anthem 

By Nathaniel Mackey

Original and Current Publisher: New Directions     

Megan Snyder-Camp writes:

Merging two ongoing serial poems, Splay Anthem engages a vast historical and geographical sampling of voices. Splay Anthem is foremost about motion and transition, and Mackey is as precise and curious as a jazz musician in his attention to a range of movements including migration, alliteration, limbo, battery, crab-scuttle, planetary circling, highway driving, and lovemaking. Even his lines sway against the left margin, hinging down from the right every so often like a sprung jaw.

As he traces the nuances of these forms of movement, Mackey’s cast of characters and scenes shifts in and out of focus. Heavy with musical references, mythical gods and places, political and cultural turning points (from fraught elections to O.J. Simpson), and wry hybrids like “Chuck E. Jesus,” Splay Anthem transcribes their singing rather than narrates their story.

The book is divided into three sections, “Braid,” “Fray,” and “Nub,” and alternates between numbered installments of two ongoing serial poems, “Song of the Andoumboulou” and “mu.” While Mackey gives referents for the two series in his preface, story is so subsumed to sound in this captivating book that I was reluctant to turn myself over to his liner notes.

In “Braid” we meet lovers and travelers, peer over their shoulder and under their feet. Part book of the dead, part pillow book, these opening poems linger where one thing folds into another, as in “Lag Anthem—‘mu’ eighteenth part”:

  Lifted our legs, an arrested
   run we made look like

and soon after in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 40:”

                                    kept us
afloat. What we read said
  there’d been a shipwreck. We
     survived it, adrift at sea…

These are expansive, bold poems of creation and destruction: the violence of a drum beat to the head, cloth stretched across a lover’s body, liturgy on a page. They are located at points of departure—tavern, train, shore—and from there they alight in Peru, Egypt, Jamaica, as well as in the layered nodes of meaning—as here in “Glenn on Monk’s Mountain—‘mu’ twenty-fourth part,” tightening the gap between the noun and verb meanings of “rung”:

    Pads and keys cried out for
  climb, clamor, something yet
                                                to arrive
   we called rung. Rickety wood, split
reed, sprung ladder.

Lifting and lowering are recurring movements in the book, often in connection with images of boats. Mackey’s ships are far from pleasure boats—they are more likely to carry slaves, explorers, or exiles, and in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 52” in the book’s second section, “Fray,” our lovers, in alluding to the shipping locks whose varying water levels allow the passage of boats across a canal, enact a lock’s movement across several levels at once:

                    […]                  “Locks,”
   he announced, lifting his hand, touched
  hair, braids he saw lifting the boat he
lay down in, course he’d have run, boat
   being soul. Twisting a braid with one
hand, she answered, “Hair,” as if correcting
   him, locks’ lifted boat rescinded […]

Splay Anthem’s final section, “Nub,” engages, among other things, an apocalyptic landscape and the drive of humans to settle and build. These are poems at once political and, as the nub of a half-gone limb, vulnerable and bare. In the untitled second part of “Song of the Andoumboulou: 58,” Mackey writes:

  […] Unsay said what there was of
   to say. Nub’s low skyline lay to our
  Nub lay close to the earth… Nub cut us
    off. We were never all there. Raw knuckles
pounding the earth bled rivers. Bloodrun
us away

This tension between table-clearing and table-setting, or rather, this vibration between the two gestures, carries Mackey’s love of language. Spilling beyond the content of his work, he draws a compelling connection between the sentences we build and the life we make. He finds syntax-patterns (like “It wasn’t…”) and riffs off of them, finds the connection between that sentence’s habit and its original fruit. Then, where the words were, he sets our bodies. In this way a wavering sentence shimmers into a dancing body, an interrupted fragment becomes a caught wrist. This is jazz.

For all the social relevance and urgency his work contains, the best way to read Mackey is to take it in the way you would listen to one of the eclectic radio shows he DJs from his home in Santa Cruz—sit back and let the sounds carry you. Feel the movement of the words around you, their tug and wash. Let them thrum on the top of your head. Let your head sing. Be moved and carry this movement forth into the world.

Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: James Longenbach, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Li-Young Lee,
Claudia Rankine, C.D. Wright

The Year in Literature:

  • Late Wife by Claudia Emerson won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Donald Hall was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Other Information:

  • Nathaniel Mackey (1947- ) was born in Miami, FL.
  • Since 1982, Mackey has been editor and publisher of Hambone, a literary magazine that has published an eclectic group of poets ranging from Sun Ra to Robert Duncan.
  • In 2010 Mackey received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Mackey reads from his new book of poetry and talks about his writing to an audience at UC Santa Cruz where he is a professor of literature.

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Migration: New and Selected Poems

By W.S. Merwin 

Original and Current Publisher: Copper Canyon Press     

Patrick Rosal writes:

Some Questions about Questions… and Vanishing

In Migration: New and Selected Poems, W.S. Merwin has a poem called “St. Vincent’s,” (originally published in The Compass Flower) which feels elegiac now that the West Village hospital is shut down.  “I consider that I have lived daily and with / eyes open and ears to hear / these years across from St. Vincent’s Hospital.” The poem accrues a series of memories through litany: “I have seen…” and “I have come upon the men in gloves taking out / the garbage at all hours…” and “I have seen one pile / catch fire…” and “I have noticed…” The speaker acknowledges his own neglect; he’s one of many witnesses who has taught himself to ignore the sirens and to abandon the emergency arrivals, a disregard that suggests how complicit he is in a city’s blindness to suffering. He has been a part of a machine of erasure.

When I consider the fate of St. Vincent’s hospital, I wonder, what does it mean for a poem to outlast its subject (particularly a poem that points to erasure)? It gives the illusion of endurance and maybe even perpetuity. But even a “fixed” structure is mutable. Consider the plastic arts for a moment: there are materials that decay, rot and rust. The elements of a place—its weather—change the feel and appearance of these materials. Conventionally, we think of such changes as a kind of ruin (though the most interesting architects and sculptors, to me, must imagine decay as a part of the structure’s substance).

We might say, ruin is essential—and sometimes beautiful.

In poetry, the elemental forces of language and history can also alter (i.e. ruin) a poem on stratospheric and/or molecular scales, though we’re often unaware of the transformations, sometimes gradual and miniscule, sometimes acute. Point is, a poem like Merwin’s “St. Vincent’s” continues to interact with the world it renders. Both language and the subject(s) it refers to are changing dynamically.

Merwin’s poem is, in part, a meditation on (and praise of) evanescence and vanishing. Most telling, the poem returns briefly to some beautiful observation, but lands ultimately on the interrogative, wry and ironic:

several of the windows appear
to be made of tin
but it may be the light reflected
I have imagined bees coming and going
on those sills though I have never seen them

who was St. Vincent

(The poem’s irony is doubled by the fate of St. Vincent’s, isn’t it: the hospital gone; the Saint also now long gone…)

What I admire most here is the movement between memory and question. We live in an era in which certainty is privileged over questioning. I think about how interrogation holds a powerful place in our public imagination—if only by its distortion and its absence. In the dimmest precincts, it’s a bloody process. I often ask my students what makes a good question and what questions suggest about power. Who gets to question whom? What kinds of questions might map the disappearances of our time?

I don’t know of a good poem that doesn’t traffic in investigation/questioning. Sometimes those poems are explicitly comprised of interrogatives. The widely anthologized “Some Last Questions” appeared originally in Merwin’s earlier collection The Lice. Published in 1967, the poem’s interrogation of the body and its accompanying surrealist responses are brutally understated. The interaction seems both formal and magical.

What is the head
             A.  Ash
What are the eyes
             A.  The wells have fallen in and have

The tongue according to the nameless respondent is “[t]he black coat that fell off the wall / With sleeves trying to say something.” Meanwhile, the hands are simply “Paid.” What is the disjuncture between the straight-forward, simply composed questions about the body and the somewhat hallucinatory answers? The responses are not just strange in the images they depict, but in their hacked syntax: “What is the silence / A. As though it had a right to more.” (One notable poem in Migration is composed entirely of questions, “Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field.”)

Migration is a 500-page book that collects a half a century of Merwin’s poetry. There’s much to mine. I suspect that the poems of The Moving Target and later consist of the work we have come to admire. Because it’s impossible to provide a survey of a survey of a life’s work in this short post, I did want to make my recommendation for a poem I hadn’t encountered in anthologies, but which I have come to enjoy deeply, called “The Houses.”

In it, a boy is brought to the woods by his father for some curiously innocuous reason, and as his father starts a fire and cooks hot dogs, the boy is permitted for the first time to run off by himself. On two occasions, the boy sees two different houses, reports them to his father who insists there are no houses there, that is his property. The boy is scolded and warned “not to tell stories.” The houses magically seem to appear and disappear and we are left with what resonates deeply, I think, with many who love the imagination: the profound sadness and private joy of what the boy has seen and can’t speak of or explain.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

Poetry Judges that Year: Carl Phillips, John Balaban, Carol Frost,
Lawson Fusao Inada, Julie Kane

The Year in Literature: Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • W.S. Merwin (1927- ) was born in New York, NY.
  • Merwin has published more than thirty books of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry twice (in 1971 and 2009). 
  • Merwin was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2010.

Bill Moyers  The Journal: W. S. Merwin
Poet W.S. Merwin joins Bill Moyers for a wide-ranging conversation.

Watch the full episode. See more Bill Moyers.


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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 (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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