Beckian Goldberg"Under the Room of What We Say"
Jean Valentine, The Cradle of the Real Life.
Wesleyan University Press, 2000, 86 pages, $12.95, paper.

by Beckian Fritz Goldberg


In Woody Allen's 1977 movie, “Annie Hall”, there is a scene where the two potential lovers Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvie (Woody Allen) engage in a general conversation while, on the screen, appearing as subtitles is the real but unspoken text of the conversation. While it may be odd to begin a discussion of Jean Valentine's recent volume of poems The Cradle of the Real Life with a clip from Allen, whose comic-neurotic sensibility seems, at first, far afield from these moving poems. Valentine's work has always concerned itself with the real conversation. In her latest book, she does this in a section called “Her Lost Book,” by giving us just enough of the apparent conversation or statements to lead us to read what, by implication, by the very body language of her poems, is really being said. In a series of poems involving a couple's therapy:

  I was dark and silent.
The therapist said,
"Why don't you wear lipstick?"
To J: "Does she lie on top?" To J:
"Don't play her role.
Don't give the children their baths
or feed them."

The reader, of course, hears what is not said, what the therapist's questions really say (they do not ask, they instruct and implicate). The poems here are as much about penetrating layers as anything. In "At the Conference on Women in the Academy," Valentine's language again takes us beneath the surface of what is being said:

  The young scholar, her weeping finger
the anger reality
under the "social construction of reality"
under the deaf blind TV filmed
broadcast auditorium: the woman talking
in the split-open room
under the room of what we say.

In this brief archaeology of the place that language is, the poet leads us to that split-open room. Many of the poems here, deal with the tension between this and the "room of what we say," as does "In the Public Library" where a woman is reading to several others the story of the Triangle Shirt Factory fire. Just at the point in the story where the factory women discover the doors are locked and there's no escape, the librarian "says she has to stop/it's time for him to close. He closes." As the speaker explains to a male acquaintance in "He Says to Me, In Ireland," she wants "those women's lives/rage  constraints/the poems they burned…The History/ of the World without Words." It is a world of denials, the nun's abuse of the girls at an orphanage ignored by the local doctor, the women in prison practicing Beauty Care on mannequins, the world of a personal depression so bewildering:


"can't feel  can't
or speak
or step

doctors looking down a well."

But Valentine does not mean to simply point us to that place for its own sake. The poems concern, most of all what is our investment in language and how is that reflected in our lives or, rather, by our lives. Appropriately, The Cradle of the Real Life opens with a poem titled "The Pen":


The sandy road, the bright green two-inch lizard
little light on the road

the pen that writes by itself
the mist that blows by, through itself

the gourd I drink from in my sleep
that also drinks from me

—Who taught me to know instead of not to know?
And this pen  its thought

lying on the thought of the table
a bow lying across the strings

not moving

Several things are remarkable here—Valentine's music, her ability to move in open-ended phrases but keep "stepping lively," the imagery of the pen as a lizard on the road, the greenness of it as a "little light" and tracing its movement, transforming into "gourd", "thought" lying on thought, bow "not moving/ held." In it we see the act of writing itself as part of the natural world of animal, water, wind, light & the mysterious stirrings of language which comes up from the unconscious "gourd I drink from in my sleep," and which also "drinks from me." This is the nurturing, the cradling of language which we put our selves into and draw ourselves from as well. The imagery here is of the small (two-inch lizard), the often insubstantial, mist, sleep, light, thought and finally, a canny reversal. The music here comes not by drawing the bow across the strings of the instrument but by letting it lie across, be held. The active and the passive are married in this closing image. Part of the erotics of writing here is the awareness of "otherness," and the awareness that waiting and listening (what we often consider passive) is at the heart of it.

A poem which chronicles a father's return from the navy after WWII after a year "watching his pilots/not come back to the ship," and the consequent rage he lived with and made the family endure, also considers the effects of those moments we have the most trouble articulating. The children who grew up in this atmosphere of adult rage "flew off/one off a bridge  one into a book/ one a note/ into a bottle…" The poem ends in two sudden lines of dialogue:


—Oh my dead father
—Ah Jeanie, you're still in words…

Here we see the daughter's investment in language still encountering her father's lack of investment in it. Her "retreat" into language is survival but here the implication is that from her father's point of view "words" are less than "actions." There's a dismissal here that is sad and ironic because the poem ends in that brief dialogue, language the only sign of life still between them. It is the voice, too, of "the real life," the place of connectedness in spite of damage, in spite of silence, in spite of absence.

Consider the tenderness of this poem:

  Mare and Newborn Foal

When you die
there are bales of hay
heaped high in space
mean while
with my tongue
I draw the black straw
out of you
mean while
with your tongue
you draw the black straw out of me.

There's a maternal voice here, a reciprocal nurturing between mare and foal which is heightened by the subject—death and afterlife. The pacing of the poem is marvelous—reading it aloud is a pleasure—and it is deliberately constructed to be so. The separation of "meanwhile" into "mean while" is not simply idiosyncratic. It not only literally gives us pause, but emphasizes the simplicity of the speaker; the poem is entirely monosyllabic and each word receives its equal weight.

This is a risky poem, as many of Valentine's poems are, but that is what makes her work so absorbing. It is not afraid of mystery. Nothing in this poem is "unclear"—it's perfectly clear what is being said. I have visions of my eighth grade English teacher fretting and sweating the class over what the "black straw" is. I don't think, however, it's something to "translate." In context it is what it needs to be, the reader senses it—there's the darkness of it, the drawing out, the delicacy of it, the implications of "drinking" (being nourished), and of something being released from the body. At the end of another poem "What God said," Valentine quotes St. Mechtilde of Magdeburg:

  Do not fear your death, for when it arrives
I will draw my breath and your soul will come to me
like a needle to a magnet.

This image of drawing out/drawing in, drinking from, being drunk from—this intimacy—also occurred in "The Pen" and is a motif throughout Cradle. As such, it serves as a counterpoint, I think, to the dynamics of deflection that go on in some of the poems which involve the said/not said, the use of language to dismiss, the use of language that belies its subterranean meaning. The first stanza of this same poem uses the blunt or abrupt "closure" of "In the Public Library," "November," "He Leaves Them," and "The Labrador”:

  After she died
her son destroyed her paintings:
incinerator flames: "She wouldn't want anyone
to see this stuff." Then he killed himself.

and this is immediately followed with the image of (almost maternal) intimacy along the lines of "The Mare and Newborn Foal," or the poem "Little Map" where Valentine speaks of "Our brush with each other/—two animal souls/without cave/image/or/word." The poems which evoke primarily this mutuality, this nurturing intimacy, employ a different kind of "closure," than the abrupt click of the Yeatsian box. They end, sometime in ellipses, or, like "Little Map," without end punctuation. Each technique achieves its rhythmical effect, "The Mare…"by its deliberate use of the line, "At the Conference..." by an equally deliberate use—a series of clauses split by a colon that never do add up to a "sentence" but simply accumulate language ("deaf blind TV filmed/broadcast auditorium…") until it is cut off abruptly, "split-open."

The Cradle of the Real Life is a rich and fascinating book that explores the layers of our lives. In "November" the speaker, leaving her home and her marriage, speaks of the two mountains shrinking in the distance landscape as "female and male/ walking down the stairs/ into the ground." The poem ends with the pronouncement:


—I have to leave
and I have to watch.

There is a strange reciprocity expressed here, the dark side perhaps of "I drink from you/you drink from me." It is the lover-as-writer, the woman-as-writer whose experiences are necessarily attended by that Inner Record-keeper, Note-taker, but it is also the duality of action and feeling. The speaker is not leaving joyfully, so the act of leaving is the opposite in some sense of what she desires, what her heart is pulled toward. This is why she has to watch, to be outside herself at the same time as she is mourning deeply. To record the leaving would not be the story of a "real life." the watching and the necessity of doing so is also the story. "No deception penetrates here," states the epigraph to the book from Martin Buber," here is the cradle of the Real Life."


BIO: Beckian Fritz Goldberg holds an M.F.A . from Vermont College and is the author of several  volumes of poetry, Body Betrayer (Cleveland State University Press, l99l), In the Badlands of Desire (Cleveland State University, l993), Never Be the Horse, winner of the University of Akron Poetry Prize selected by Tom Lux (University of Akron Press, l999) and Twentieth Century Children, a limited edition chapbook, (Graphic Design Press, Indiana University, l999.) Goldberg directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University.



table of contents