Jean Valentine
Sarahbande Books, 2009
Review by Emily Hendren

In her most recent chapbook, Lucy, Jean Valentine explores the relationship between a woman and the equally real and abstract character, Lucy, and offers a tender space in which readers are invited to share in the story of womankind. At times the narrator seems naive, if not vulnerable, comforted by the presence of Lucy—no matter how distant her presence might be. Lucy becomes a silent penpal, a diary to which the narrator can speak freely and sincerely. Remarkably, reading the one-sided conversations between these two friends does not feel like an intrusion of privacy, but rather a gift of openness from the narrator herself. As the narrator uncovers Lucy's mystery as a companion, the reader follows the journey from abstract to real, stranger to friend, foreign to familiar, and traces back through the years to one of the most historical discoveries of all time.

The book begins with an introduction of Lucy, and quickly the camaraderie between the narrator and the archaeological mystery unfolds. The lines between poems become blurred the way topics of daily conversations shift in tone, pace, and theme. One page can exist as one page or as one part in a greater discussion. Subjects of lines themselves also blur, as in the line "The spider / in her web three days / dead on the window Lucy;" the reader asks is Lucy the spider? Is the narrator the spider? Is the spider a spider the narrator wishes to tell Lucy about? And magically all meanings work beautifully as one and as separates, stitching together a mysterious "other" aspect to the work. Valentine's subtle lack of punctuation provides the stage for larger interpretation of each line, perhaps mirroring the literal archaeological discovery's possible interpretations, the potential figures Lucy represents in abstract, and suggesting the time in which a literal Lucy would have lived—a simpler time without punctuation and bravado.

Along with representing the literal woman discovered in the Ethiopian archaeological dig, Lucy represents womankind, protector, friend, mother—the female components of love, tenderness, and strength women seek in their counterparts. She is both wholly abstract and real; at moments when the narrator mentions that her "scraped-out child died" Lucy can exist to "hold her, all the time." Lucy becomes the comforting friend to the narrator and the mother to the narrator's lost child. In the same poem the reader sees Lucy in another comforting light when Valentine writes: "I rush outdoors into the air you are / Lucy / and you rush out to receive me / At last there you are / who I always knew was there."

The story of two companions, of close friendship between the narrator and Lucy, unfolds in the untitled poem that begins "Lucy / my saxifrage that splits the rocks / wildgood / mother / you fill my center-hole." The reader witnesses the narrator's affection for and connection to the literal and abstract Lucy through concise, image-deriving words like "saxifrage," "wildgood," and "mother." It is through these specific words that the reader understands Lucy's diversity as a character; she is as much a stone-breaking wild thing as she is a love-offering caregiver.

Lucy also demonstrates her role as comforting caregiver in the untitled poem that begins: "Lucy / When the dark bodies / Dropped out of the towers / When Ruth died ..." Throughout the poem, the narrator creates a simple and bleak list of deaths that seems unending until Lucy appears as the one who will charter the dead to their peaceful resting place. Valentine writes of her heroine: "You are the ferryman, the monk / Ieronim / Who throws your weight on the rope." This poem, along with five others in the book, incorporates coupled lines on the page, a visual technique that reminds the reader of the connected pair of the narrator and Lucy.

Throughout the chapbook, the narrator asks questions of Lucy, perpetuating the friendly tone and the every-day casualness of the book. In an untitled poem, the narrator asks: "Or what do you do now Lucy / for love?" Later, when the narrator completes the simple task of washing a plate and spoon, the reader sees her inquire after Lucy's possessions and demand that Lucy's needs be met. Valentine writes: "Did you have a cup, Lucy? / O God who transcends time, / Let Lucy have a cup." Through these simple questions, the narrator demonstrates great compassion for the woman figure she never knew in tangible form. The narrator goes on to ask a string of questions throughout the book that include "Do you sleep and wake where you are now?" "Do spiders hibernate?" "Did you hear animal-woman screams in the night?" "How did you pray, Lucy?" Valentine concludes her inquiries in the final line of an untitled poem, saying "You must know / everything."

Toward the end of the book, the reader witnesses Lucy's transition from abstract to real; as the narrator puts up artwork "for Lucy" and appears to take inspiration from the archaeological Lucy's ancient, simple life, Lucy becomes more literal to the narrator, and equally so to the reader. In the poem "Your Picture," the narrator describes Lucy: "Brown museum hair, brushed the way they brush it there, / brow lit from inside / intelligent eyebrows, / slightly wrinkly nose, a little flat— / brown woman ..." Later, after the narrator's eloquent list of Lucy's physical features as depicted at the museum, Valentine sets apart two short lines from the rest of the poem that capture the essence of the narrator’s awe and the reader’s enchantment: "But Lucy / your eyes." The narrator sees the same vulnerability in Lucy that the reader sees in the narrator.

Valentine closes the poem with the lines "So I gave all I had to the poor, standing about / like wildflowers." The final thought of the poem likens the poor to Lucy and to the narrator based on lines from the preceding poem, "My Work of Art for Lucy." Valentine draws parallel between the poor and Lucy and the poor and the narrator by repeating similar lines in each poem. First, Valentine declares "make it so the poor are no longer / despised and thrown away." Next, she states: "Your skeleton / standing about, like a wildflower ..." Finally, to close "Your Picture," and to connect the poor of the world to Lucy and to the narrator, Valentine proclaims: "So I gave all I had to the poor, standing about / like wildflowers." What is perishable has value, and what might deserve the highest value is that which can perish.

The final pages of the book travel the course of time through Old English blessings and American folk artist Martín Ramírez's work: "Skeleton Woman, Guardian, Death Woman, Lucy, / Here, a picnic, corn bread, here, an orange / with Martín and me at the lip of the Earth Surface World." With these closing lines, the questions and conversations the narrator shares with the many incarnations of Lucy throughout the poems resound in a place of peace, as Valentine declares what Lucy was, is and always will be.

Jean Valentine was born in Chicago, earned her B.A. from Radcliffe College, and has lived most of her life in New York City. She has authored ten books of poetry, including Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965 - 2003 (Wesleyan Publishing), which won the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. Break the Glass, her new collection, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Books in 2010.

© Emily Hendren, 2010