as if at its center,
god would be there—
but at the center, only rose,
where rose came from,
where rose grows—
& us, inside of the lips & lips:
the likenesses, the eyes, & the hair,
we are born of,
fed by, & marry with,
only flesh itself, only its passage
—out of where? to where?
Then god the mother said to Jim, in a dream,
Never mind you, Jim,
come rest again on the country porch of my knees.
Emily Dickinson’s famous formulation, that she knew poetry when she felt as though she was being trepanned (to amend her slightly), isn’t always reliable; sometimes I’ve found it’s an all-over chill or burning, and sometimes it’s my heart being scoured out or drop-kicked into eternity. In the case of Valentine’s “The Rose,” though, I have to go with Dickinson. When I first read this poem, I felt like I’d been whacked with a two-by-four.
·The gorgeous fragment of the labyrinth presents an essential question—maybe the essential question—after setting aside the possibility of a Creator. Presents, that is, the mystery. We’re taken down into rose, into womb, ultimately to nothing, the nothing out of which something comes. At the center of the labyrinth, only “passage.” Only rose, the sheer fact of it—tender, brute fact. In those twelve lines, filled with the call-and-response of nouns and rhymes and syntax, we’re held inside contemplation and wonder (and perhaps dread—who are we? Where are we going? What’s the point of it all?).
And here comes the two-by-four: a radical shift in tone and diction, the fragment and questions dissolving into a single declarative sentence. The poem seems simply to rupture. What happened to that profound, suspended moment? Weren’t we ready for a bit of existential wisdom, maybe a further profound question? That’s what a lesser poet (whatever that is—let’s say a more predictable one) might deliver at this point. But, no. We leave it all behind with the word “Then.” Now we’re in the narrative universe, with god showing up after all to offer a bit of good ol’ reassurance. Have we wandered, by accident, into another poem? Did the contemplative questioner go off her meds, or come down from the hallucinogenic drugs she took with the South American shaman? And who the hell is Jim?
What Valentine does is to offer an answer to the unanswerable, that a certain kind of person could take as solace—an answer that seems to me a critique of that solace. Here’s the front-porch version of the Pieta, and Jim/Jesus is back in his mother’s arms. (Technically dead, if this is the Pieta, but still). Never mind you about those big issues, honey. Screw that labyrinth, let me make you some cookies. Mommy’s here.—In Hemingway’s words, Isn’t it pretty to think so?—What I love is how tempting that is. Don’t we all want the solace, if not of religion, then of memory? Aren’t we creatures of nostalgia because we truly need it? My own mother died this year. She was never no country porch, but in occasional dreams, there she is, my source, the lips from which I came. Out of where? To where? Some of her ashes are in a Ziploc in my kitchen. If I can have her back in a dream, I’ll take her. This, too, is in that turn, for me. I’ll have it both ways, thank you very much.
Kim Addonizio has been called “one of our nation’s most provocative and edgy poets.” Her latest books are Lucifer at the Starlite, a finalist for the Poets Prize and the Northern California Book Award; and Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, both from W.W. Norton. Her novel-in-verse, Jimmy & Rita, was recently reissued by Stephen F. Austin State University Press. Kalima Press published her Selected Poems in Arabic. Addonizio’s many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships, and Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and the essay. Her collection Tell Me was a National Book Award Finalist. Other books include two novels from Simon & Schuster, Little Beauties and My Dreams Out in the Street. Addonizio offers private workshops in Oakland, CA, and online, and often incorporates her love of blues harmonica into her readings. Her website is www.kimaddonizio.com.
Jean Valentine, “The Rose” from Little Boat © 2007 by Jean Valentine. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.