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As National Poetry Month comes to a close, 2 new retrospectives to savor

W. W. Norton & Company, Alice James Books

With National Poetry Month comes spring flowers and some of the year's biggest poetry publications. And as April wraps up, we wanted to bring you two of our favorites — retrospective collections from two of the best poets of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: Marie Howe and Jean Valentine.

Howe's New and Selected Poems makes a concise case for Howe's status as an essential poet. The New & Collected Poems of Jean Valentine gathers all of the beloved late poet's work, a monument to a treasured career.

New and Selected Poems by Marie Howe

Marie Howe is writing some of the most devastating and devastatingly true poems of her career — and some of the best being written by anyone. Her subject matter, from a bird's eye, is simply the big questions and their non-answers: What are we here for? What does it mean to do good? What have we done to the environment? What are the consequences and what do we who are here now owe to those who will follow us? And yet her tone and straightforward delivery make her poems as approachable as friends. Howe is the rare poet whose poems one wants to hug closely for company, companionship, and empathy; and yet they are works of literature of the highest order, layered, full of booby traps and shoots and ladders that suddenly transport one between the words. It's tough love that these poems offer, but it's undeniably love.

This first retrospective gathers a book's worth of new poems along with ample selections from of Howe's four previous collections, each of which was a landmark when it was published. Her nearest antecedent might be Elizabeth Bishop, who also didn't write very much, or didn't publish very much, but everything she wrote was good if not capitol-G-Great. Howe is best know for What the Living Do (1997), which remains one of the great books on youth and grief, regret, and moving forward if not moving on. It regards a world in which "anything I've ever tried to keep by force I lost." Startling, almost koan-like statements like this erupt out of unassuming domestic scenes, making everyday life into high drama.

The typical speaker of a Howe poem is a woman who seems much like Marie Howe, even when she is speaking through the voice of the biblical Mary, as she does in Magdalene (2017): "I was driven toward desire by desire." She is serious except when she's funny, though she's rarely laugh out loud funny — it's more of a kind of internal laughter, either like blossoming light or paper rustling in one's chest. She is consoling, except when she is taking herself and readers to task, bowing under the simple, Herculean responsibilities that come with living a life, being a parent. She's tough, sometimes even stoic, except that in almost every poem there is a moment of surprise, a revelation, a piercing insight that injects a kind of pure ecstasy.

Some of the new poems are among the best Howe has written, making them among the best period. Set "In the middle of my life — just past the middle," these poems grieve lost friends; reckon with the sudden adulthood of a daughter; lament the destruction of the environment; and take the moral measure of this very disturbing era. Each of these everyday dramas becomes an access point for the deepest kind of human reconciliation, where we must finally admit where language fails us. These poems also feature a recurring character, "our little dog Jack," who, with all best intentions, becomes one of Howe's most devastating metaphors. But all metaphors have their root in plain fact. As Howe writes in "Reincarnation," one of her best poems, "Jack may be actually himself — a dog."

Light Me Down: The New and Collected Poems of Jean Valentine

This is one of those monumental events in American poetry: the life's work of a major poet gathered in one big book, an opportunity to revel in all that Jean Valentine accomplished in her long and prolific career. As a young poet, Valentine (1934-2020) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 1965, for her debut collection, Dream Barker. In 2004, she won the National Book Award for Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965-2003. In between, and after, she was always well regarded by the mainstream poetry establishment, winning most of the prizes available to an American poet.

But Valentine's real influence was as a friendly ambassador to and from the avant-garde. It's hard to pin Valentine's poems down: I wouldn't call them experimental, but they are anything but straightforward in their slippages of thought and wide leaps of association. Fairly early in her career, Valentine begin working in a style that had her teasing the reader with images, gently suggesting the way the poem should go, until, perhaps, a thunderclap at the end disturbs the calm. She always knows where to end. Pick almost any poem and the last couple of lines will shock you with their unlikely inevitability.

Valentine writes about everything — love, death, sex, the roiling political situations of the last half-century — with simultaneous candor and mystery: "I have been so far, so deep, so cold, so much," she says prophetically in an early poem. She asserts that poetry can be made almost entirely through suggestion, that the poet must trust the secret links between one word and another, and trust that the reader will be willing to travel with the poet along those underground currents. In a short poem, a haiku from 1992, "To the Memory of David Kalstone," dedicated to the literary critic who died in 1986, Valentine offers as succinct a statement of her poetics as one could want: "Here's the letter I wrote,/ and the ghost letter, underneath—/ that's my life's work." Valentine's poems draw our attention to the words beneath the words, what's said between them, in all the white space surrounding the poems.

Elsewhere Valentine opts for simple observations, stirred by a bit of mystery, as in the brief elegy "Rodney Dying (3)":

There are no sudden bolts of profundity here, nothing, really, that you could call insight, at least not overtly. Instead, Valentine asks an object, the sock, to carry the grief. This is a technique poets call the "objective correlative" — it's an image that stands in for an emotion or knot of emotions. That unassuming object, or really just the word for it — sock — becomes a vessel, a kind of canopic jar to contain grief, but also to let it rattle around a bit. The poem ends with what might be an allegory for death, but is also a celebration of Rodney's vitality. The language is as plain as can be, and yet I exit the poem with uncertainty, equally hopeful and despairing. Valentine is an expert at tensing these sorts of contradictions against one another. The emotional climate in Valentine's poems is ambivalent in the best way, lit by contradictory energies.

And while this book is a monumental celebration of an extraordinary legacy, it is also sad to hold: Valentine was in an inexhaustible and generous force in American poetry until so recently. It feels impossible to accept the fact that she is dead while reading poems that are so profoundly alive.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books, including The Trembling Answers, which won the 2018 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the essay collection We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress.

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