Celebrated poet reads at Beinecke

“I’ve never written such a long poem before,” Jean Valentine said at her poetry reading at the Beinecke Library on Wednesday.
“I’ve never written such a long poem before,” Jean Valentine said at her poetry reading at the Beinecke Library on Wednesday. Photo by Juliet Liu.

Elephants, a 3.2-million-year-old skeleton, a creative genius, spiders, Newton and even a vagina — all of these meld together in a startling burst of fantasy and reality in award-winning poet Jean Valentine’s latest collection of poetry, “Break the Glass”.

Valentine, who won the Wallace Stevens Award last year and the Yale Younger Poets Award with her first book in 1965, read some selections from her book Wednesday at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to an audience of about 25 people. The event was part of the Beinecke’s series of poetry readings to celebrate the living art of American poetry.

POEM

Door in the Mountain

By Jean Valentine

Never ran this hard through the valley

never ate so many stars

I was carrying a dead deer

tied on to my neck and shoulders

deer legs hanging in front of me

heavy on my chest

People are not wanting

to let me in

Door in the mountain

let me in

From “Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003.”

“Jean specifically is a poet whose work I’ve loved for a long time,” said Nancy Kuhl, the curator of American Literature at the Beinecke Library. “Her book has just come out [Sept. 1] and this is one of her first few readings.”

Valentine’s latest works are written in free verse — her signature style — and continue to meld mundane lines like “It is morning / I sit at a table” with the fanciful “Open the music behind the glass,” most noticeable in her title poem, “Break the Glass.”

Audience members ranged from local English teachers and interested members of the New Haven community to two high school classes from around Connecticut, which had taken a field trip to attend the reading.

“I thought a lot of her earlier works were from her own memories and experiences and today, except for the ‘Lucy’ sequence, it seemed as though she was getting away from that,” said Luke Vogel, a senior at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn.

A highlight of the reading were sections from “Lucy” — a 16-page poem about a 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus skeleton found in Northern Ethiopia in 1974. Valentine said she was immediately struck when she saw a picture of a reconstruction of Lucy’s face. The poem is rich with allusions — to the Bible, to Anton Chekhov and the medieval devotional book the “Book of Hours.”

“The thing that’s different about this book is the long piece,” confided Valentine in an earnest undertone. “I’ve never written such a long poem before. I wrote it in a day and a half. I’ve never had an experience like that.”

Valentine added that she can’t distance herself from her work to judge it when she finishes a new poem, so she likes sitting down with three of her close friends — also poets — to hear their critique of her work.

Valentine’s reading style added another layer of complexity to her poetry, audience members said.

“She charmed the audience with her sweet, serene voice, lulling them into feeling almost like time had stopped,” said Nick Bensen, an English teacher from Gunnery High School in Washington, Conn.

Reactions to her work were mixed, and most of the 10 high school students interviewed said they were a little confused.

“There was a dream-like disjunction, sort of like she was skipping from idea to idea,” Amelia Urry ’13 added.

But Valentine said in an interview that she never expected her audience to feel any particular emotion or react in any way or even try hard to understand her poetry since poetry, like music, cannot be understood.

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