“—The wide river at dawn. The hippo’s lifted face”
“younger than water, remember…”
“Twice born, three times, coming around now”
– From Shirt in Heaven by Jean Valentine
No matter how they are arranged, these randomly selected lines from Valentine’s new collection read like poetry. At once shadowy and pelagic, the phrases in the book move like air across water. Valentine’s is an invisible natural force so powerful that it conjures the feeling of having been part of us all along.
For many, her work needs no introduction. She is former State Poet of New York (2008-2010) and author of twelve books. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems (Wesleyan, 2004) won the National Book Award for Poetry. Beginning with the Yale prize, Valentine’s work has earned her the highest honors, including the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets and a Guggenheim Fellowship. As a teacher, she has mentored many, and she has taught in the writing programs at Columbia and NYU.
It is no wonder that Valentine’s work resonates so palpably. She writes universal veracities. Her work is free of contrivances as well as too-specific cultural and literary references—references that could stir readers’ anxieties about education or status. Through her creative expression of things, we are unburdened of diurnal specifics and launched into the sublime.
A small volume in shape and size, Shirt in Heaven embraces work that is also compressed: each poem is a collection of cosmic threads bound in miniature:
I’d get you a glass of champagne
if we were still
in that hollow of sand and rock
above the beach. Talking by
listening. If you
were still breathing. Our purpose
A romantic evening. Natural beauty. Modes of communication. Loss. Enlightenment. Six lines, a title, and empty space—like the breath before speech—express each of the themes that reappear in these pages. Valentine’s poems have a dream-like quality. They drift between life and death, the personal and impersonal. Some poems are written to people Valentine has known. For example, “Friend” is dedicated to poet Adrienne Rich, though its sentiment is not exclusive. Every reader can recognize the feelings being expressed. “Friend” is particularly poignant for writers, as its last two stanzas describe the process that Valentine and Rich shared:
Yesterday, in the afternoon,
more than a year since you died,
some words came into the air.
I looked away a second,
and they were gone—
six lines, just passing through.
Here, as in many of the book’s elegies, Valentine portrays lives as conversations embodied within text. Even while we are alive, the spirit may be elusive— but language can make it tangible. Shirt in Heaven bravely suggests that what is on the page is substance similar to that which we carry in our human forms. The connection between the writer and the words she channels is a vital relationship that remains transient despite —striving for eternity.
Jean Valentine’s Shirt in Heaven artfully proves this connection between words and spirit as it revivifies the voices of various poets—poets whom the author has known only through their work. Maria Tsvetaeva, the Soviet- era writer whose poetry Valentine has translated, is one of them. “Her Last Year” describes Tsvetaeva’s struggles, which include starvation and the traps of changing political regimes. “With my eyes, I see you eat stones” the speaker of this poem claims, adding, “I don’t recognize anything.” These words reconstruct Tsvetaeva’s stark, clear world. In the reality of the immediate present, this world may not exist or be recognizable. But in the dimension of literary art, this world is resurrected. By the end of the poem, the speaker says:
I recognize everything.
The sign, the cut, the knife,
the dark wood, the net.
Valentine pays homage to poets Paul Celan as well as to Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam. All three suffered the tragedy of the Second World War, from its dark escalation to its aftermath. Valentine herself was a child at the time; her father served in the Navy. He, too, appears in this book, in a poem about trauma that veterans experience upon their return home. “A Child’s Drawing, 1941” follows one family’s trials. The poet describes both parents as “ladders”—an allusion to the primitive nature of the child’s drawing and a metaphor for parents as leaders. The scene is depicted in crayon. The mother holds a child, while the father holds a glass of bourbon. This is an ekphrastic poem, one that describes the oppressiveness of the father’s presence as well as the confusion in the child’s mind as she identifies with him. The father is
…coming out of the child’s drawing
in his old open pajamas—
he’s in the war. The sky
is blackest crayon-canyon.
When does he leave again? When he leaves,
I leave. I like that river the sky.
Innocence. Trauma. Loss. These topics also emerge from the book, but with the cantilever of light and transcendence. There is the poem “Great-grandmother, ” which says, “we all gave birth/in the same safe-house, warm, /and then we rest together.” Many poems are love notes, in the end. “You Speak” and “Isn’t There Something” are two examples.
In an offer of reassurance, a higher power reaches out from Valentine’s work. “A Leaf, a shadow-hand” speaks of “a soul locked away inside/not knowing anyone” until
“…you, whose shadow-hand
(kindness) just now blew over my head, again
you said, “Don’t ever think you’re a monster.”
Nurturing. Forgiveness. Unconditional love. These qualities are here, too. They make it possible to survive the losses—personal losses, the result of our own failings—or losses from illness, as in the poems “Hospice” and the one, titled after a quote from Shakleton’s diary, “[The Ship] is slowly giving up her sentient life. / I cannot write about it.” To those who know loss, Valentine gives wisdom and love. Through language, she buoys us the way Rembrandt buoyed her, as in the poem “Self-Portraits”:
From the first time I saw you,
when I was young,
you held me in your own understanding exhaustion.
Recognition. Understanding. It’s all here, in this precious book. I will reach for it again and again, when I need to rise above the fire.