Friday, July 21, 2006

Jean Valentine

The artist Danny Sillada and I have been discussing short poems and what is uniquely challenging about writing a poem that is complete in its language and emotional arc, but brief in its number of lines. Yesterday, the poet Vijay Seshadri suggested I look up the poet Jean Valentine, who is a writer of short poems. I found this poem on her site:


Once there was a woodcutter,
when he asked me to marry him
the woman in the grocery store said
You look like you lost your last friend.
First love!
When we broke up
it was as if the last egg in the house
got dropped on the broken floor.
This world is everywhere! The woman said,
You won’t go unsampled!

Jean Valentine

This poem is replete with the energy of love and despair and, finally, hope. The interaction between the two women--one young and dealing with the loss of her first love, and one older and wiser and knowledgable in the world--is sweet and totally believable. My favorite lines are the last two: "This world is everywhere! The woman said, / You won't go unsampled!" She assures the young woman, in the most joyful, encouraging, way, that "there are more fish in the sea," and that, like the morsels of food in her grcoery store, the young women will surely be "tasted" by others.

I cannot escape, however, the older woman's characterization of the younger woman as object in the sentence, that she will "be sampled" by others rather than "sample" others herself. It is a complicated ending to me, as I'm not sure that the young woman has gained any power through her experience. I would prefer that she go out and discover the "everywhere-ness" of the world and taste it through her own will; but perhaps that ending would be too easy. Perhaps there is a prescience in the grocer's words about the younger woman's fate.


Danny Sillada said...

This poem’s impact is similar to “The Red Wheelborrow”; the voice is concrete and real, accessible to the reader with no complex imagery. If you are aware of traditional Chinese poetry, and I think you are, I would describe the above poem like a butterfly that just passed by and then flew away leaving you that beautiful feeling inside. That’s the beauty of short "accessible" poem.

I think this kind of poem fits to my description of my ideal poetry in my essay on “Finding New Meaning in Po-Mo Poetry” with brief excerpt below:

“I believe that poetry is a dialogue between two souls, a conversation that whispers in the readers’ private and intimate encounter with life. And, poetry, as a dialogue and revelation, it also reveals the founding of truth reflecting the realities that matter in the readers’ own quest for truth. Poetry should not alienate and neither self-conscious nor intellectual because it is a universal language supposedly accessible to every human being.”

Thanks Amy.

Andrew said...

I read it a couple of times and got different senses of the relationship of the girl with the woodcutter. My final impression is that she was sad when he asked her to marry him, then saw the world as her oyster (if you'll pardon the cliche) after the breakup. I see it as ending in hope.

J.B. Rowell said...

I love the quote - Danny - I've been realizing that the poetry I enjoy most is really just what is unsayable face to face.

I was thrown off by all of the ! (3) in such s short poem, it took away from the power in its compactness. Also, the egg breaks on the broken floor - interesting.

As for the ending, I'm starting to get that the world will come sample us, no matter how we try to hide ourselves (and our hearts).

Amy said...


I also get the sense that she was sad to find herself engaged. Perhaps, at that time, she thought it was her only option.


Exclamation points always seem controversial in poetry. I like them here, because the play out the passion of first love, and show how that passion can be a passion for life, as evidenced by the grocer's words.

lavender said...

I sense that the friend she lost is herself, since marriage is akin to giving one's self away. I also relate to the idea of being “sampled.” Another person notices you, is interested in you, wants to explore what you are about. The desire for this is the desire to be appreciated. What troubles me is the acceptance of the coming and going of romantic experiences and the pain of that, instead of a hope for a lasting relationship. To be sampled is a superficial form of love, too selfish for me to call it true love. The desire to be appreciated and celebrated in romantic love, though, even for a moment, is strong enough to make many put all their eggs in that basket.

Any thoughts as to why her beloved is a woodcutter? My first thought is tied to the destructive nature of cutting, but also the constructive uses of the cut wood. The wood is no longer in its natural, untouched state, but now has a range of new uses.