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Little Boat by Jean Valentine
© 2007, Wesleyan University Press. 67pgs. ISBN: 819568503

A Review by Sonja James


Jean Valentine’s Little Boat is her most distinctive collection of poetry to date. Her spare yet innovative language simultaneously hits the reader with the force of a tidal wave while retreating like a murmur too soft to be heard. The poems defy one to assign meaning when meaning enforces and enables each Spartan line. These poems work because they demand work on the part of the reader. Take, for instance, the short poem “For Her” whose subject is a mare who remains nameless throughout the poem written in her honor: “For her, /for the tense mare and her rider.” When the poem opens, the mare is an adult capable of bearing the weight of a human, “her rider.” As the poem progresses, the mare’s origins are a riddle when, in the middle stanza, she rises “out of the father-ground.” Her father seems not to be a stallion but the earth itself. In the final stanza we are reminded of the mare’s former status as a foal and then before that of the fact of birth itself:

For her,
once a foal          For her,
born, like many a foal, born with a
wet-black line of hair down her spine—

The anonymity of the mare is belied by the specificity of her birth, and yet, the mare is one of a multitude, “born, like many a foal.” This poem, which is rich and complex and seems to defy interpretation, is emblematic of the complexity of the rest of the poems in Valentine’s slender volume. The poems explore matters such as the life of an artist in prison, fairy tales, love, and religion as well as a series of hospital poems and poems based on questions from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers by Bhanu Kapil Rider. Diffuse yet demanding focus, each and every poem mesmerizes the reader with Valentine’s singular ability to suggest possible worlds without limiting the reader to a particular interpretation. Here is another poem in which evocation is the signature element of this unique and often baffling poet:

Hospital:            Scraps

Scraps of hard feelings
left on the floor
winter material

But out the window
sun on the snow
Dressmaker’s pins
--somebody’s soul
a feminine glint in the trees

(p. 37)


Sonja James is the author of Baiting the Hook (The Bunny & the Crocodile Press) and Children of the Moon (Argonne House Press).

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