A Poem For Saturday

Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:

This week the Poetry Society of America and the Bryant Park Reading Room joined forces to sponsor a tribute to the poet Jean Valentine with readings, recitations, and remarks by Catherine Barnett, Mark Doty, and Timothy Liu, and a reading of poems by Valentine herself, from her recent (and absolutely extraordinary) book, Little Boat.

Valentine is a contemporary poet who—like John Ashbery and the late Lucille Clifton—continues to inspire successive generations of poets. In 1965, her debut volume Dream Barker was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Dudley Fitts, the selecting judge, described her in terms that still feel fresh and true today, praising her “quirky singular intelligence, a fusion of wit and tenderness, subserved by an unusual accuracy of pitch and rightness of tone.”

In 1969, Valentine published Pilgrims. Adrienne Rich’s moving words adorned the jacket, “Almost every poem is life lived at the edge, but lived by someone who is without cessation a poet.” Years and years later, after Jean had published many more volumes—and with her new book, Break the Glass, she is up to thirteen—Rich described Valentine’s poetry as one “of the highest order, because it lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn’t approach in any other way.”

Reading her delicate, tensile poems gives us steady access to the inward places, as Rich described, to what Emily Dickinson was indicating when she wrote of “internal difference,/Where the Meanings, are—“

This weekend, we’ll feature poems by Jean Valentine, starting with one from that early collection, Pilgrims, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1969 when (to give you a sense of the time) current volumes by John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Pablo Neruda, Edmund Wilson, and Derek Walcott were advertised on the back of the jacket. All these poems are available in Valentine’s Door in the Mountain: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2003.

“The River at Wolf” by Jean Valentine:

Coming east we left the animals
pelican beaver osprey muskrat and snake
their hair and skin and feathers
their eyes in the dark: red and green.
Your finger drawing my mouth.

Blessed are they who remember
that what they now have they once longed for.

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:
walking into the river at Wolf with
the animals. The snake’s
green skin, lit from inside. Our second life.

(From Door in the Mountain: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2003 © 2004 by Jean Valentine. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press)