Ghost Letter: Remembering Jean Valentine

by Kim Vaeth

Originally delivered at the 50th reunion of the Radcliffe Class of 1956.

It’s not hard at all, is it, to remember sitting in the back of this lecture hall for that philosophy course you took in the spring of 1953, trying to concentrate on what the middle-aged male professor was saying, trying to take good notes, your spiral notebook open to a fresh page, the fountain pen in your hand trembling a little as his voice echoed from the stage. His lecture that Tuesday afternoon in March might have been about “On Human Understanding,” in which John Locke wrote, “Let us then suppose the mind to be white paper, a bright blank world of uncoordinated things. How comes it to be furnished?”

A messenger sat near you that spring, perhaps just a few seats down, and in her spiral notebook she was taking notes according to her own ideas: of creation, of corporeality and objects, of consciousness, of the transition, moment by moment, from not-knowing to knowing through which we represent the world to ourselves and to others. Sitting in the balcony, this messenger heard another voice that she might describe as existing underneath the professor’s voice, and on her page of white paper, she began to take notes about how she would furnish the bright blank world of the mind.

These notes find original poetic form in Jean Valentine’s ten books, which, if you do not already know, are unlike any other poetry in their steadfast compression of language, their religiosity and spiritual yearning, their full-throttled demand at the dinner table of the world for what she calls “Wisdom Gravy.” The gravy Jean Valentine stirs on her Little Marvel Stove “is wide and deep, saltier and stranger, / I’ve carried it home to you under my white hat.” The word like almost never ventures into a Valentine poem, where nothing is like anything else—nothing is like what we call reality, nothing is like dreams, nothing is like childhood, nothing is like death—all exist for her as primal images undiffused by the reach of comparison.

That February you dreamed your old father said Spring
this year and its flowers
will cost you eighteen thousand dollars.

Remember those “two roads” that “diverged in a yellow wood”? Remember how Frost’s speaker is “sorry [he] could not travel both / and be one traveler”? In a Valentine landscape, or perhaps, more exactingly, a Valentine inscape, where the dead often speak up and are addressed with the ease of a phone call, we feel the immediate presence and tug of a double consciousness from a poet who, in nearly every poem, can and does traverse both roads as one traveler.

For Jean Valentine, there is always another world happening under the one we are consigned to; one of her most compelling poetic desires is to be led away to that other world, where she can ferry us across the spatial and temporal divide of the explicable. While shoveling sand in “Fellini in Purgatory,” Fellini asks, “Don’t you see how much like a woman I am?” In a dream, Robert Lowell says, “She’s the best,” about Elizabeth Bishop. On the night of his funeral service, a man addresses his mourners: “Don’t look at me that way, / I’m only one day dead, / I need care.” And in the poem “Where Do You Look for Me,” the speaker says:

They think because I am dead now
I am no longer twigs on the ground,
stones or bits of stone in the wall.
That I was just something good on a plate
for them to eat. That I have no one.

Her poems lead us to an almost wordless place, outside of thought, away from where we “half live / half wake / above ground,” like the snakes in the poem “Rain.” How else could we get to the consciousness divide—the dream equator—where Emily Dickinson is “a canoe of light” in one poem and “a water spider rowing over danger and death” in another. Valentine keeps vigil through the night and tells us: “You must keep seeing: everything /must be turned to love that is not love.”

In the poem “Annunciation,” we are jolted by the speaker, who reverses the predictable migration from the body to the soul:

I saw my soul become flesh      breaking open
the linseed oil breaking over the paper
running down      pouring
no one to catch it      my life breaking open
no one to contain it      my
pelvis thinning out into God

And listen to what happens to these dichotomies in “To the Black Madonna of Chartres”:

Friend or no friend,
darkness or light,
vowels or consonants,
water or dry land,

anything more from you now
is just gravy
—just send me down forgiveness, send me down
bearing myself a black cupful of light.

While her peers Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, and Muriel Rukeyser were writing feminist, overtly political poems in a narrative mode, Jean Valentine continued to keep her own vigilant counsel and move out from that private space for all the decades since your graduation. When you think of the difficulty of the life of an artist, imagine this: she made her own home in the wilderness and lit it with a kerosene lamp. Her closest American poetic comrades are Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Cooper, Fanny Howe—and her work has profoundly influenced and made a marked path for scores of other poets, women in particular.

Jean Valentine has won many, if not most, of the awards and honors that can be bestowed upon an American poet, from the Yale Younger Poet Prize in 1965 to the 2004 National Book Award in Poetry. When you get home and tell your friends about your 50th reunion, tell them that you went to college with one of the great American poets; tell them that one spring semester you sat next to her during philosophy lectures.

Here is the letter I wrote,
and the ghost letter underneath—
that’s my work in life.

Published on September 15, 2021

Read Jean Valentine's essay on Seamus Heaney, "Sunflowers."