With More Than a Little Bit of Care: James Reiss on Judith Valente’s Discovering Moons

Discovering Moons, Judith Valente, Virtual Artists Collective, 2009

A journalist’s commitment to facticity—the “who, what, when, where, why,” let alone the “how,” of a situation—is generally considered to be at odds with creative writing. Perhaps the most celebrated journalist to seriously try his hand at verse, Stephen Crane, ended up with a handful of canonical poems. Hardly anyone has argued that “The Black Riders” is on a par with “The Red Badge of Courage.” Still, Crane’s reportorial free-verse nuggets have tunneled their way into our culture, undermining many a Potemkin village of platitudes regarding religion and ethics.

In fact, if you Google the two words journalist poets without quotation marks, one of the first names on your list will be Judith Valente, who happens to cover religion and ethics for PBS and NPR. Twice she’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work in “The Dallas Times Herald” and “The Wall Street Journal.” It’s true, one of her Pulitzer nominations had to do with a “soft news story” about a religious conservative dad coping with his son’s fatal AIDS. Plus, Valente is well known as an interviewer of such dyed-in-the-wool writers as the poet/editor Ron Offen on Chicago’s WBEZ. Well, I’ve heard her on public radio and she sounds as though she cares a great deal about her day job as a member of the press.

She appears to have put together her long-awaited debut volume of poems, “Discovering Moons,” with more than a little bit of care. The book’s three-part table of contents is cyclical. The first poem deals with a potentially life-threatening event, as do five of the six poems toward the end. The middle section, “Walking with Dr. Williams,” is not riotously euphoric, but it doles out mega-doses of restorative details, the mundane ones that C. S. Lewis and William Carlos Williams relished—as does Mary Oliver, who has recently endorsed Valente’s work. What’s more, some of Valente’s liveliest poems approach the kind of Frank O’Hara “I do this I do that” Personism evident in his chestnut, “The Day Lady Died.”

In “The Book of 55,000 Baby Names” Valente doesn’t so much take us through city streets as guide us through the synapses of her brain. Whereas O’Hara marched through Manhattan inevitably toward the headline in “The New York Post” announcing the death of Billie Holiday, Valente plunges through a sourcebook of monikers, discoursing on the meaning and popularity of babies’ names: “how Emily and Emma reached the top of the roster”—at least until 2007, when Emma took third place and was replaced by Isabella! Part of the impetus for Valente’s research is her stepdaughter, pregnant, who finally chooses Ava (“Portuguese for grandmother”) as her child’s name. But mainly it is Valente herself as a step-grandmother—it’s her high spirits that are responsible for the surprise end of her slant-rhymed excursion in couplets, when she locates Ava and invents a name for an anonymous infant alongside her:

Some [babies] still enter this world nameless,
like the newborn preemie, dark-haired, restless,

lying in the crib next to Ava’s in the neo-natal ward:
no crayon-colored name on his white ID card.

He punches the air with a balled fist, then lifts
his swaddled bottom. Name him, Adia, Swahili for gift.

Another scattershot Burst of Judy—herself named “after the patron / saint of hopeless causes”—full of a madcap enthusiasm as “contagious” as the hospital Dr. Williams famously rode to, erupts in her 50-line tour de force, “Inventing An Alphabet.” Valente can barely contain herself as she contemplates letters in an alphabet that forms words, literary allusions and a crazy quilt of language, including lyrics from the Crystals, as well as at least two time-honored slogans [editor’s note, the second line of each couplet is indented in the original]:

Dante’s nine circles, Do ron ron ron ronda do ron ron and
Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale ytoold

Ask not what your country can do for you,
See the USA in a Chevrolet, What you want, baby I got it.

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E and Good night, Sweet prince
Odes and onomatopoeia, haiku and heroic couplets. . .

More than two of these shotgun blasts in one book could be excessive. Accordingly, taking her lead from the superb, soft-spoken Chi Town poet, Lisel Mueller, Valente murmurs, “What happens, happens in silence.” This line from a poem by Mueller comprises the so-quiet-you-can-hear-a-pin-drop beginning of Valente’s title poem, “Discovering Moons.” The situation is simple: Valente and her husband are lying in bed one fine morning. Certain offbeat particulars provide subtle conflict, enriching the story: “We wake in a room your daughter painted // sunrise red. Daylight drips through linen / curtains, feeds us intravenously.” The image of an IV is disquieting, especially considering health issues and the number of hospital poems in the book. Yet this image is far less violent than Robert Lowell’s opening couplet in “Man and Wife”: “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed; / the rising sun in war paint dyes us red.” Happily married, Valente finds it easy to keep a stiff upper lip appropriate for a tranquil aubade. The supine couple plays a hushed little game of charting “constellations of ceiling,” the hubby imagining a crack in the plaster is a ballerina while Valente says it “is Christ strung upon his cross.” Any possible conflict once again dissipates as lines drift toward astrophysics, which Valente prizes. The poem ends in a decrescendo; rather than proclaiming something like “Ah, love, let us be true to one another,” Valente sighs, “There is so much I want to say to you / in a language without words. We orbit each other // like the moons circling Jupiter / in unconjugated space: Europa, Callisto, Leda, Ganymede, Thebe.”

Space may be “unconjugated,” but as a child Valente conjugated Latin verbs. Her education at St. Aloysius Academy and St. Peter’s College in Jersey City has followed her all the days of her life. She is certainly not a lapsed Catholic and makes no bones about her faith in poems like “Faces of the Madonna,” though she’s far from a religious neocon and has a pagan’s appreciation of the things of this world. She’s never stopped following her freshman art teacher Mrs. Cirone’s instructions “to observe a beechwood / describe what we saw,” even if young Judy “said the branches / were the serpent tresses // of Medusa.”

Call her iconoclastic, call her late for the Last Supper: in one of her most ambitious theological meditations, “Body and Soul,” she ponders the Irish poet/philosopher John O’Donohue’s words about thinking of “death not as the breath / on the back of the neck, / but a companion with us since birth, / benign doppelganger who knows us / better than we know ourselves.” This memento mori might have been a comfort to O’Donohue, who passed away peacefully two years ago when he was 53, before Valente wrote her poem about him. Whatever the case with O’Donohue, his words have served Valente, who has had her share of run-ins with the Grim Reaper. Although she’s been continually drawn to what monks and nuns call the vita contemplativa—she is currently writing a book about the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas—she opts for more than the Vatican when she refers to a renowned British scientist [editor’s note, the lines below are indented differently in the original] :

I prefer physics. Julian Barbour’s concept:
time, a continuous tableau of many
different nows, each a single frame
passing an all-seeing lens,
so the instant of me in my kitchen
a few minutes from now,
stirring a can of Campbell’s tomato soup
for lunch in 2001 Chicago,
rolls out in simulcast
with Andy Warhol applying a splotch
of fire-engine red to his soup labels
in 1962 New York.
We are at once fetus and 44 years old,
molting in the Big Bang
and reading this poem.

You don’t need to know New Math to see that, if Valente was 44 in 2001, she’s in her early 50s in 2010. Nowadays if 50 is “the new 40,” you might as well subtitle her book “The Prime of Ms. Judith Valente.” There are poems here that travel to Maui, Cape Hatteras, and small Midwest towns—once in tandem with her husband, Charles Reynard, an Illinois Circuit Court Judge who’s also a poet. There’s a ghazal about traveling in the desert, where Valente appears to revel in what another middle-aged first-book poet called the “essential barrenness” of things. There’s a prose poem about a Thai Festival of Lanterns, the impact of which is compounded by another of Valente’s stepdaughters describing the Festival as “[c]reepy,” “some cult worship thing.” There are several sections in poems that evoke Valente’s mother Theresa, a bottle blonde with “olive skin so dark / that when she tanned, her sisters called her // netta in Sicilian: negress” (sic). There’s a wonderful rhyming love poem which takes off from a photo by John Matt Dorn, who’s responsible for the book’s haunting cover art—as well as a gritty winter diary cobbled together from disjunct, end-stopped lines such as “Inanition. Verbing. Words as salvation.”

Sure, there’s one—thankfully only one—lead balloon, a poem with an epigraph from Rumi (let his ashes and his verse rest in the 13th century, where they belong!) Let me not, in a positive review, admit impediments!

Instead, let me bow out by raving about Valente’s first poem; it’s the only one in the book that uses the second person (“you”) point of view:

“Green” is masterly in its deployment of indented triplets, like the ones in “Body and Soul,” which segue from sentence to sentence with a signature fluid grace. This hospital poem, notable for its mystery, manages to be right on target at the same time as it’s slightly out of focus. The main character may well be the autobiographical “I,” but the use of “you” distances Valente from the experience. Similarly, the use of “they” to describe the hospital staff—nurses and aides—avoids ER clichés, just as the anesthesiologist, mentioned explicitly, has a name the “you” character can’t remember. Even the brand names of anesthetics, “Versed, Sublimaze,” go beyond knee-jerk journalistic facticity and verge on being puns. Most important, Valente doesn’t tip her hand by mentioning the exact nature of the medical procedure depicted here. It is clearly an excision, but Valente isn’t about to reveal that the surgery involves the removal of a tumor. This isn’t just another poem about The Big C. If “Green” is about cancer—and I don’t think it is—the disease plays second fiddle to other considerations, including the poem’s cozy final stanza, in which the character awakens in a recovery room:

You drift back gently to a green world:
grass-colored scrubs, aqua chairs, mint walls.

What, after all, could be more important for a poet who goes walking with the doctor who wrote “The Red Wheelbarrow” than her devotion to another physician’s “grass-colored scrubs”? At night she dreams of “a bald blue man,” seemingly a death figure luring her “to the other side.” She refuses to go with him. She makes “the sign of the cross three times” and gradually “awaken[s], a penitent / to the gray, marsupial morning.”

Whew! Put that punch line in your pouch and smoke it!


James Reiss currently lives in the Land of Lincoln and never asks himself, “Why oh why oh why oh did I ever leave Miami of Ohio?” http://www.jamesreiss.com/