The Cradle of the Real Life by Jean ValentineJean Valentine
Wesleyan University Press ($12.95)

by Craig Arnold

The Cradle of the Real Life is Jean Valentine's eighth collection of poems, the latest offering in a thirty-five year spread, and a fine overture to Valentine's chemical wedding of old-school feminism and new-school poetics. Although she has received less attention than her more outspoken peer Adrienne Rich, Valentine feels as acutely the bounds of the oppressor's language, and the imperative for women to write their own apprehensions of their own histories. Her method is less immediately engaging—it's edgy, given to leaps and bounds, not as likely to preach to the choir. Rather than try to talk herself out of the given language's constraints, Valentine chooses a shortness, of both reach and tone, as if telling too much would be an affront or a betrayal. Some poems are so pared-down as to make paraphrase laughable. "In the Public Library," for example,

a woman is reading a factory story
several people listening
she gets to the fire
the noise to the locked doors the death room
The librarian says she has to stop
it's time for him to close. He closes.

Against the librarian closing up, against the circumlocutions of husbands and sons, doctors and therapists, even her fellow poets, Valentine raises her own sharp voice, "the women talking / in the split-open room / under the room of what we say." Her clipped lyrics are gnomic, as ingenuous as the best riddles: "No one's a house / for me anymore / or me for them," she writes in "Home." Many are dreamlike, even nightmarish: white wolves scaring the complicit townspeople into "bread and butter sleep"; the Labrador who steps into a trap and "won't chew his foot off"; Margaret, "dressed like a bag lady," with a "miner's lamp" of maggots burrowing in her dead forehead. Valentine's mad marriages of occasion and image recall Emily Dickinson's; her line breaks feel honest rather than mannered, sidestepping syntax with a grim grace that many theory-obsessed Language poets can only fantasize about. What her poems hint at, the answer to their riddles, is unsayable because it is not made of language—a gentle tug at what Valentine names the "poem without words," and prefers to express in as few words as possible.

There are passages in The Cradle of the Real Life, though, where Valentine forgoes the surreal for the simply realistic. Berating an Irish poet for ignoring the women who have suffered to make his poems, she writes:

But I want those women's lives
rage constraints
the poems they burned
in their chimney-throats
The History
of the World Without Words
more than your silver or your gold art.

What makes this so wild are the "chimney-throats," the domestic home fires silencing themselves in a single surreal stroke. Still, I can't help feeling that subject matter is hogging the spotlight here—which is perhaps the point, that the poet wants the raw stuff rather than some artistic prettifying of it. Perhaps, as some historians think, we're always fighting the last war. But the "real life" cradled here—alcoholism, depression, suicide, abuse, broken marriage, abortion—seems to equate the real with the sordid. If this is all that's real, I'm ready at least to consider the silver or the gold art, as I suspect the poet herself does, in her own gorgeously terse and singing.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000