Winter 2001


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Graham Foust
JUNG TURNED INSIDE OUT: Poems by Leslie Scalapino, Jean Valentine
Scalapino, Leslie
New Time
Wesleyan University Press, 1999
$11.95, 94 pp.

Valentine, Jean
The Cradle of the Real Life
Wesleyan University Press, 2000
$12.95, 75 pp.

“You can’t beat a stick,” writes Jean Valentine in her most recent collection, which, according to the book’s back matter, “presents experience as only imperfectly graspable.”  You could, of course, beat a stick.  But what good would it do you?  And what harm?  This is the kind of brilliant mistake that I love in poetry, and it’s also what exposes the stupidity of the back matter:  anyone who’s ever hit their funny bone (or read a poem for that matter) knows that language can’t help but present us with imperfect versions of experience (which is to say a version of an experience that is itself an experience).  Language is always a kind of knowledge, but knowledge isn’t all language. And so good verse doesn’t tell us what is right or wrong in terms of what is possible, but rather what is right or wrong in terms of our sense of what is possible. The lack of reciprocity between language and knowledge is what any decent poet must commit themselves to both working with and enduring, and the sense of what is possible within and without these works and this endurance is constantly changing lanes-not to mention shape-which of course leads to new forms, new poetics. 

But if this happens in due time (and I think it does), it does not happen in New Time; the hyperbolic back matter of Leslie Scalapino’s latest book doesn’t begin to save these poems from confounding and disappointing at least this reader.  “Real events,” says the anonymous Wesleyan employee, “occurring in real time, are transformed in the act of writing them as perceived rather than interpreted.”  From the beginning, Language writing taught us that the transcript is the transformation, but New Time is simply perception ad nauseum, a pointilist belaboring of pointlessness.  Jung once wrote that “[a]ny reaction to stimulus may be casually explained; but the creative act, which is the absolute antithesis of mere reaction, will for ever elude the human understanding.”  Scalapino has managed to turn Jung’s assertion inside-out by presenting us with a book composed entirely of random (and, to be sure, mere) reactions, which, far from being casually explainable, leave me completely dumbfounded.  These “small jobs” do nothing but enervate.  To wit:

 the rain forest is so closed in-calls dropping-the trees the
same-one being depressed it doesn’t sustain it.

        it doesn’t enhance-being-(or) depressed.


        one would be taken away from oneself in not being (seeing) con-
tinual change-dawn-land isn’t one-is land-living?

        to redo the break, that’s dawn per se

To be sure, this is no brilliant mistake; rather, it reads like a transcription of some sun-baked tourist’s musings.  To be surer, we are all guilty of such musings, but most of us let our disposable cameras record these thought-pieces for us and haven’t the time nor the desire to hoodwink a university press into thinking us geniuses.  Let’s see what Valentine can do with fewer words:

           I couldn’t
           he couldn’t

           Father I’m twenty

           Whiskey     marriage
           children     whiskey

Like many of the poems in this book, this untitled lyric’s economy, clarity and subject matter bring to mind the work of Lorine Niedecker, who I think would have been driven insane by Scalapino’s uncrafted ramblings.  At other times in The Cradle of Real Life, one is reminded of Paul Celan’s taut and haunting telegrams:

           Snow falling
           off the Atlantic

           out toward strangeness

           a breath on a coal

Valentine wastes no words; everything matters.  Scalapino somehow manages to waste even as she recycles:  everything is simply matter.

If language is poetry’s method of presentation, then I think it’s safe to say that perfection isn’t poetry’s gift.  But we don’t need poetry to beat us over the head with this fact any more than poetry needs anonymous blurb-age (which exists in order to “sell” poems) to inflate its importance or sell it short.  While its poems are certainly “more textures than statements”-but what good poem was ever a statement?-The Cradle of The Real Life, which is always careful enough to be both a container of experience and a rewarding experience in itself, is a good deal more than the summation of its parts would lead us to believe.

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