The Sunday Poem : Jean Valentine


Poet Jean Valentine (Photo © Star Black courtesy Star Black)


No one has captured the essence of Jean Valentine’s poetry as eloquently as the late writer Adrienne Rich:

“Looking into a Jean Valentine poem is like looking into a lake: you can see your own outline, and the shapes of the upper world, reflected among rocks, underwater life, glint of lost bottles, drifted leaves. The known and familiar become one with the mysterious and half-wild, at the place where consciousness and the subliminal meet. This is a poetry of the highest order, because it lets us into spaces and meanings we couldn’t approach in any other way.”

Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965 – 2003  is one of the few poetry collections I keep close at hand by the bedside. You can open Valentine’s book to practically any page and find brave, urgent, personal poems that somehow manage to be both emotional and unsentimental (not an easy task).

When Jean called to tell me that her brand new chapbook

[The ship] was about to be published by Red Glass Books, I jumped at the chance to share her latest work with Gwarlingo readers. In addition to being a well-respected teacher and mentor, Valentine is the winner of the National Book Award for poetry, the Guggenheim, several NEA fellowships, and was a recent finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I can think of no better way to kick-off a Sunday morning…





Shirt in Heaven


Come upon a snapshot
of secret you, smiling like FDR, leaning on your crutches—

come upon letters I thought I’d burned—

I suppose you’ve got a place with lots of stairs.

I’m at the end of something, you’re at the beginning.”


I’d be rich, I’d get you an elevator:
a rare old smoky wood one.

I was at the beginning, so I was the oldest:
a looking-away cage that opens at your touch.


       —dearest, they told me a surgeon sat down
in the hospital morgue, next to your body, & cried.
He yelled at the aide to get out.

His two sons had been your students.
—me too, little-knowing—


Bury your money


Now, there:       there’s the money.

Great captivities tap
in our sleep.

But we made a promise         God and us
to meet in another life
when we both could want it.
If only one of us wanted, that
wouldn’t be enough.
We made a promise to be naked
—though great famines bury the ear and the mouth,
though captivities cut parts away, or swell, or sap them,
we made a promise to be naked, John Cage said
Music is permanent, only listening is intermittent.


A leaf, a shadow-hand

A leaf, a shadow-hand
blows over my head
from outside time
now & then
this time of year, September,

—this happens—
—it’s well known—
a soul locked away inside
not knowing anyone,
walking around, but inside:

I was like this once,
and you, whose shadow-hand
(kindness) just now blew over my head, again,
you said, “Don’t ever think you’re a monster.”




About Jean Valentine

Jean Valentine (Photo by Max Greenstreet)

Jean Valentine was born in Chicago, earned her B.A. from Radcliffe College, and has lived most of her life in New York City. She won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book, Dream Barker, in 1965. Her eleventh book of poetry, Break the Glass (2010) from Copper Canyon Press, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965 – 2003 was the winner of the 2004 National Book Award for Poetry. Her latest chapbook, [The ship] from Red Glass Books includes the three poems published here.

Valentine was the State Poet of New York for two years, starting in the spring of 2008. She received the 2009 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, a $100,000 prize which recognizes outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. Valentine has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and awards from the NEA, The Bunting Institute, The Rockefeller Foundation, The New York Council for the Arts, and The New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as the Maurice English Prize, the Teasdale Poetry Prize, and The Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Prize in 2000. She has also been awarded residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Ucross, and the Lannan Foundation.



Valentine has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, the Graduate Writing Program of New York University, Columbia University, and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.

Her lyric poems delve into dream lives with glimpses of the personal and political. In the New York Times Book Review, David Kalstone said of her work, “Valentine has a gift for tough strangeness, but also a dreamlike syntax and manner of arranging the lines of . . . short poems so as to draw us into the doubleness and fluency of feelings.” In a 2002 interview with Eve Grubin, Valentine commented about her work, “I am going towards the spiritual rather than away from it.” In addition to writing her own poems, she has translated work by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva.

For more information about Jean Valentine and her work, please visit her website. Valentine’s latest chapbook [The ship] (2012) is available from Red Glass Books and can be purchased here.



Don’t miss the next Gwarlingo feature. Stay up on the latest art news and Sunday Poem series by having Gwarlingo delivered to your email inbox. It’s easy and free! You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook.

Also, don’t forget that the Gwarlingo bookstore has an assortment of book titles on my personal recommendation list, including poetry, fiction, art and photography books, and more. A portion of your purchases benefit Gwarlingo. You can also make purchases from your favorite independent bookstore through IndieBound. A percentage of your purchases made through this link also benefit Gwarlingo.


“A Leaf, a shadow-hand,” “Bury your money,” and “Shirt in Heaven” © Jean Valentine. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Jean Valentine’s new chapbook [The ship], now available from Red Glass Books. Cover illustration of [The ship] © 2003 Janet Kaplan, Quilt Series # 18. A special thanks to Jean Valentine and Janet Kaplan.


By | 2016-11-11T21:52:24+00:00 09.29.12|The Sunday Poem, Words|7 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Suzi Banks Baum September 30, 2012 at 8:55 am

    I love these Sunday morning posts. Not a web drifter early, I just come to Gwarlingo for my quiet morning poetry with tea.
    I am new to Jean Valentine, and very happily met. Thank you Michelle. xo S

    • Michelle Aldredge September 30, 2012 at 11:31 am

      Suzi, you’re my ideal reader. So many Gwarlingo readers tell me they start their Sunday with the Sunday Poem, which was the whole point of starting the series in the first place. I love imagining you enjoying a cup of tea with Jean!

  2. Kathryn Stripling Byer September 30, 2012 at 10:08 am

    I came to Valentine’s work when I was in the UNC-Greensboro MFA program in the late 60’s. My poetry teacher, the late Robert Watson, told me about her Yale book. I’ve admired her poetry ever since. My great-grandmother’s family name was Valentine. I like to think that somehow way back we are related. Kinswomen.

    • Michelle Aldredge September 30, 2012 at 11:29 am

      I love hearing this perspective on Jean’s work, Kathryn, since I’ve only known Jean for about 12 years now. When other writers talk about her and her work, there is always this deep sense of respect and awe that comes through. (I feel the same, of course). She has clearly had an impact in the poetry world through both her teaching and her writing. While Jean’s poetry is very different from Eduardo Corral’s, the winner of the last Yale prize, there is undoubtedly a through-line between these two Yale winners. (I love this photo of Eduardo and Jean together.) If we were to draw a diagram of all of the poets Jean has influenced through the years, it would be quite large I suspect. Thanks for commenting!

      • Kathryn Stripling Byer September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm

        Thanks, Michelle! I’ve just linked to the blog post about Corral and will let my fb friends know about it, especially Jeff Biggers, who has been fighting the good fight for Latino studies in Arizona. I’m eager to read Corral’s poems.

        • Michelle Aldredge September 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm

          Thanks so much, Kathryn! FYI: Eduardo and Juan Felipe Herrera will both be at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ, October 11th-14th, which I plan to attend. I know Eduardo, but haven’t heard Herrera read before. I’m looking forward to it. Eduardo was one of my first Sunday Poets in the early days of Gwarlingo! You can follow him on his blog here.

  3. barbara hammer October 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    dear michelle,

    i have just been introduced to jean valentine’s poetry. as i walked my dog this evening these words repeated themselves until i wrote them:

    A mistress of ellipses
    More unsaid.    Than Said

Comments are closed.