(When I last saw Celia Bland, we were standing over a smoldering log in the fire pit behind the rustic pavilion at Poets’ Walk on a misty afternoon that had brought the first chill of autumn. On better days this former riverfront estate property now left to trails and fields offers classic views of the Catskill mountain profile across the Hudson. I’d once given a reading at which I’d been able to point out the mountains that were the settings of my poems, from Kaaterskill Clove, where Rip Van Winkle had slept, to Ashokan High Point, where my late mother had returned as a ruffed grouse. But not on that damp afternoon with Celia. We could barely make out the Kingston Rhinecliffe Bridge just south of us. Scenic Hudson, which maintains Poets’ Walk, had invited a group of us to read as part of the annual Hudson Valley Ramble held in September. The sparse crowd didn’t last through the chilly marathon of readings, but we did, perhaps because poets thrive on mist and gloom. Then Celia, who teaches at Bard and must live nearby, hopped on her bike to peddle home, not one to take the gloom too seriously.
The news that Jean Valentine will read in Woodstock on Saturday, October 22nd at 5 pm at the Colony Cafe reminded me of a sparkling essay that Celia published in the American Poetry Review about a series of Valentine’s poems first published in a chapbook, Lucy: A Poem, and then in her recent collection, Break the Glass. Celia’s essay itself will appear next year in a collection On Jean Valentine, edited by Kazim Ali.
Celia is a fine poet in her own right, as you might guess from her prose. I recommend her book, Soft Box. And I thank her for letting me share this essay on the blog.)
Secret Book Written in the Dirt: Jean Valentine’s Lucy: A Poem
By Celia Bland
Lucy, three million years in the earth. Lucy, sentry to our history. Lucy, a vessel for our woe, gone to earth.
Lucy, the fossilized skeleton of a hominid, a kind of ape-human half our size, nearly chthonic, her face reduced to fragile bone unbelievable in its endurance. For longer than humans have walked the earth, her orbital bones have been silently watching. She is god and a bulb of iris or daffodil. She is animal and rough hammer.
A paleontologist holding the puzzle of her skull in his hands named her Lucy, perhaps after Wordsworth’s Lucy, who “dwelt among untrodden ways”; whose grave beauty is “Fair as a star, when only one/ is shining in the sky.” Perhaps after “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Australopithecus afarensis, the “southern ape of Afar” – she is afar off, distant, waiting in the deserts of Ethiopia, once-Abyssinia. The Ethiopians call her “Dinkenesh,” meaning “you are beautiful.” (Lucy ii)
One might argue that for Jean Valentine, Lucy is the Abyssinian maid whose song entrances the poet, inspiring her – beware! beware! – to sing. Lucy was written in a wild burst, the poems coming nearly effortlessly in a manic week of inspiration. At the poems’ center: Lucy, the honeydew upon which the poet feeds.
St. Augustine described memory as:
…a vast, immeasurable sanctuary… Although it is part of my nature, I cannot understand all that I am. This means, then, that the mind is too narrow to contain itself entirely. But where is that part of it that it does not itself contain? Is it somewhere outside itself and within it? (Confessions 126)
Lucy is sanctuary, a memory that exists both outside itself and within it.
The chapbook, Lucy, Valentine’s eighth collection, is a chain of poems. No table of contents, few titles, many repeating images – spiders, stars, wildflowers, lost ones – and voices: Rilke, Chekhov, Williams. One can read its nineteen pages in one sitting, then read them again. (All collections of poetry should be chapbooks.) Turn her this way and that and, like a prism, Lucy shines. Her faceless presence is repository of Valentine’s grief – “when my scraped-out child died Lucy” – and source of her comfort — “you hold her, all the time.” (7)
Lucy is effectively one long poem of long enjambed sentences, bone fragments stubbornly punctuated, end-stopped: “My life is for. / In its language. / Your voice.” (12) This from one of the few titled poems, “My Work of Art,” perhaps the center-poem, in which organic reproduction and artistic composition are comparable and the experience of a work of art aligns with the making of a work of art. Lucy dreams in the earth, artist and skeleton-mother. Valentine’s epigraph,
Your secret book
That you leaned over and wrote just in the dirt—
Not having to have an ending
Not having to last (3)
sounds the theme of the series: Lucy as creative impulse. Lucy comforts, pities, and gives birth to beauty. This is most explicit in the end-poem, “Outsider Art,” about Martin Ramirez, who — mad? hiding? certainly silent –for decades inhabited a California asylum. Essentially buried in the asylum, he was inside, and yet his strangely precise and filigreed line drawings of highway overpasses, bridges, cowboys and goddesses, are masterpieces of Outsider Art. Like Lucy, tracing her book in the dirt, this poem defines ephemera — “Not having to have an ending/ Not having to last” (3) – and is rife with short i’s – Ramirez, clitoris, lipstick – and long i’s – vagina, I, I – as the poet describes the making of art (or the living of life) despite its transience:
When writing came back to me
I prayed with lipstick
On the windshield
As I drove. (17)
Valentine, inside the car, writes on the inside of the glass. It is a religious act. Lucy is in the earth; we, as genomic possibilities, are inside her womb, in the marrow of her bones. The connection? Art is mutable – birthing, being born –as the her shifts to you, as the reader transforms from observer to participant, hearing the screams of an animal-woman giving birth, and becoming that mother, screaming still:
Did you hear animal-woman
Screams in the night?
Were you afraid?
Was it you last night
Your scream over and over
As you give birth? (16)
You must forgive me as I speak of the chapbook as one long poem in sections. I could almost speak of it as one speaks of an artist’s series of paintings. The palette, the techniques are analogous, the perspectives vary. The first poem addresses Lucy, who had hands, had life, and now has nothing,
Nor no words. (5)
The double negative and mirroring words – only, only, breath, breath, no, nor – is indicative of just how much Lucy has lost. Valentine then asks: “what do you do now Lucy / for love?” Her mysterious answer: “Your eye-holes.” (5) We could parse the possible meanings of such a response –seeing without eyes? perverse orifices? – but the following poems provide more likely answers. The line from William Carlos Williams in the next poem:
my saxifrage that splits the rocks
you fill my center-hole
with bliss – (6)
reveals Lucy as the essential idea-in-thing, the wildflower that splits stone (saxifrage means stone-breaker) with its humble burgeoning. Lucy brings bliss, brings blessings, brings comfort:
At last there you are
who I always knew was there
but almost died not
when my scraped-out child died Lucy
you hold her, all the time. (7)
The radical shifts of tense – from present to past to present – in these lines is another instance of how Lucy stops the holes, she is (eye)holes, and she is holy.
Lucy’s epigraph is from the Psalms:
…in thy book all my members
were written, which in continuance
were fashioned, when as yet there
was none of them. (4)
The book we know as Lucy’s secret book “written in the dirt.” The continuance we know as our hereditary connection with this ancestor, predating all other “members.” The psalm, with logic now familiar to us from Valentine’s poetry, folds in upon itself; its members (the elect?) were recorded before there were members, just as they were “fashioned” before they were made. Is this about predestination or palimpsestic histories and fate? We do know that the chapbook Lucy was inspired by a small photograph, an artist’s rendering if this pygmy hominid in a news magazine soon after scientists unearthed her grave. Valentine describes the rendering:
Brown museum hair, brushed the way they brush it there,
Brow lit from inside,
A slightly wrinkly nose, a little flat— (13)
This image sounds the changes of many of Valentine’s poems. In Door in the Mountain, her 2004 collection, doors are constantly opening to – whom? Death plumbed by life, or mutually dependent on it. Valentine describes the cry for mother, for the answers dreams can bring, and the small but pivotal affirmations of faith in the possible, and in the possibility of affirmation: “Come Akhmatova in the siege of Leningrad:/ ‘Can you write about this?’ ‘I can.’” (“Come Akhmatova” lines 12-14)
Lucy, too, is a poem of affirmation, but Valentine describes with diamantine minimalism the losses to that mysterious void at the door and the stress-fractures of her belief before voicing the ultimate, “I can.” Which, in the language of Lucy, is Lucy.
Chartres is my Lucy. The brooding power of the cathedral, its “certain slant of light,” is at the root of something in me. It spires poke from the back of my skull, antennae for words. “Lucy, when you are with me / I feel the atoms / Racing everywhere…” (19)
Chartres cathedral sits on one hill and the student youth hostel sits on another. You can stand in the parking lot of the hostel and look across the dip of the power lines and the cathedral is at eyelevel, brooding over the village below. What it really looks like is a bug, a huge stone beetle – the aggressive kind, with pincers – crouching, the fanning buttresses crooked like knees.
The hostel was raucous with young people comparing maps and sharing beers but I was exhausted by the trip so far, and I went to bed. I began to dream but I wasn’t asleep. I would open my eyes and there were the asbestos tiles of the hostel ceiling a foot from where I lay in the top bunk. I would close them and I saw a vision.
Open: The green bars of the bunk bed.
Close: I am under the arches of Chartres, on the floor tiled in a pattern of curving quadrants. I stand at a lectern and turn the pages of a book: it is the Book of Souls. Inscribed here are illuminated portraits of the faces of the elect, those who will be allowed into heaven, in gold leaf and rich inks. When I see the faces, I speak names and that person from among those tugging at my sleeve, breathing behind me – soar up to the curve of the dome and rest there their faces made multi-colored in the refractions of the rose window’s blue and ruby glass.
I look down: the book. I look up: the people hovering.
You may imagine me as susceptible to hallucinations, a romantic, but I was, to my general embarrassment, sober and solemn. I was twenty-one and thinking hard about it. Perhaps in my loneliness, my outsider’s voyeurism, I was hypnotized, caught within the radius of that holy place, just like those pilgrims who’d walked all the way from Paris, who “walked” up the front staircase on their knees; by the tourists decanting from busses in dispirited queues; by those kneeling by the sacred robe of the Virgin, that she wore while giving birth. By marble clerics strung along the arches like beads on a string. Festoons of saints. Caryatid popes leaning from the colonnades like staked tomato plants. My anomalous vision, my only “waking dream”: my Chartres. I was responding with sincerity to a monument both meaningful and meaningless. My dream-Chartres was the place where I named, created — “In thy book, all my members are written.” (4) And it was my book. My secret book. Only breath marks. (5)
Chartres, like Lucy, is idea-in-thing, a vessel and a provocateur. It will endure, and has endured, since the 9th century, the 12th, the 18th, the 21st.
Or it will fall. And in falling it will be refashioned as presence and as absence, drawn in lipstick on the windshield, formed as prayers upon our lips, ideas inside our skulls.
“Let’s have a moratorium on poems about the Twin Towers,” a friend said to me recently at a poetry reading. I can understand his request – the poem-as-epitaph has become a standard like AIDS poems were in the eighties. This is not a critique of those poems, just a statement of the collective closing of our ears.
In the eighties, I temped for a gold trader on the middle floors of the WTC. I was a data entry drone. The gold traders were Dutch. The firm was founded in the Renaissance, heyday of the Netherlandish empire. There were grimy cubicles close to the elevators and a glassed in trading floor where men paced like polar bears at the zoo among flickering computer screens beneath a kind of tickertape light box: speeding abbreviations and fractions. In the foyer hung a dusty reproduction of the company’s founder in the style of Van Eyck. He wore a turban as he, in the clearest of pinks and deep Delft blues, he balanced powder on a small golden scale – testifying to the longevity of the gold business, the fundamentals of Capitalism. We will last, his long nose attested. We will endure.
I hated every minute of being in that tower. I hated the pneumatic tubes that sucked us to the thirtieth floor. I hated the view of the hazy city, robbed of its colors by yellowish plate glass until it was the New York of a seventies’ movie. I hated the curving brick plaza in front of the buildings where workers could supposedly sit and eat their lunches but where cyclonic winds, created by the weird conjunction of these white monoliths, drove us away. We stood in nearby alleyways, leaning against other buildings to eat our sandwiches as stray sheets of paper blew around the empty plaza.
I always thought back to that summer with relief that I had gotten out of that job and the twin yard sticks. That I wasn’t condemned to stay. But when the towers were gone, the space where they stood was as much a landmark as the towers had been. That emptiness lived in my mind, irradiated by loss. Those thousands lost, that past, irrevocably lost. Who to appeal to for comfort? Who to tell of our sadness, to witness to unnamable tragedy? And who to cry, “Iraq, Iraq,” as one might cry, weeping by the bank of a river in Babylon, “O Zion”?
For Valentine, the white towers are a focal point. In the memory of their rectangular reality and their absence, the air where they were memorializes all who died there. Who died.
When the dark bodies
Dropped out of the towers
Lucy, when Jane in her last clothes
Goes across …
You are the ferryman, the monk
Who throws your weight on the rope. (8)
Valentine memorializes by both individualizing – Jane is most likely the late, lamented poet Jane Cooper — and generalizing – the dark bodies — our collective losses. Lucy is a conglomerate of myths, of ideas, of the named and unnamed dead, and yet the essential elements, the gold at the base of this alchemical mixture, remains true: when (not if) tragedy, then Lucy.
Lucy is ”bodhisattva here-/with-us. You wanted to come back!” (9) Valentine’s impressionistic and expressionistic — even participatory — style makes Lucy a ferryman rowing us to the afterworld, an avatar of god. She is the mother in Ramirez’s work,
Like in the great cathedrals,
A clitoris, a starry one,
And a womb…
How did you pray, Lucy?
You were prayer.
Your hands and toes. (16)
She is the wildflower that breaks the rock, the poor, the living, the dead, the receiver of the dead and the unborn. Like the poet Orpheus, like St. Francis, she entices the animals with her song.
The deer and the wild turkeys
that draw close now to hear you.
I can’t tell cold from heat.
not even dust. (12)
She is the act of blessing, the ultimate affirmation. Her poem ends, fittingly, with a litany of her names, her roles, her functions, and the poet’s offering:
Skeleton woman, Guardian, Death Woman, Lucy,
here, a picnic, corn bread, here, an orange
with Martin and at the lip of the Earth Surface World. (19)
Art is our offering, at the lip of the world, and Lucy, in Valentine’s imagination, is artist and Great Mother, making the offering and – thank you! – accepting it.
St. Augustine. Confessions. Trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin, 1961.
Valentine, Jean. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965-2003.
Middletown: Wesleyan, 2004.
Lucy: A Poem. Louisville: Sarabande, 2009.