We chew scripture to keep from biting off our tongues
as we seize and weep under the bodies of saints,
our legs dislocate to take in the pristine coronae,
until there is no Catherine left,
only the numinous canon they leave,
seeping onto the stone floor.
That segment, the end of “Apocrypha,” the title poem of Catherynne M. Valente’s 2005 collection, seems to me to embody many of Valente’s overriding concerns. Myth and folklore, in this collection focused mainly on Christian hagiography, pervade the volume, on one level a translation of the sacred into carnality, which becomes a metaphor for the domination of women by the necessities imposed by men. It’s an angry collection with many powerful images, many powerful works, strong and poignant, and yet it never seems to go beyond that premise, never gets beyond the anger and rebellion. We never quite reach that leap of insight that snaps the story into a larger focus.
The same thread of anger and rebellion forms an undercurrent in the poems collected in A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects. The range of sources is greater here, from the Eddas to the Inuit to the Egyptian Helen, and there is a broader approach, but the themes are still anchored in the state of being a woman. It’s a delineation of “Other” from the outside viewpoint, a reaching for Self by the outcast.
Much contemporary poetry is concerned with Self and Other, the Other often, as in Valente’s work, monstrous in the sense that what is not known must necessarily be frightful. Perhaps that is the result of so many of the strongest voices in poetry these days being those of women and gay men, both occupying realms outside the boundaries of the known and accepted. The works of poets such at Mark Doty, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo all resonate with the tension between the familiar and the outré, ultimately bridging that gap to add new dimensions to our understanding.
Valente’s works do not quite make that leap. There is a hermetic quality to these poems, an inwardness that too often precludes insight. They are about being a woman, told from a particular perspective and incorporating a kind of reserve that somehow blocks that last reach for understanding. Erdrich, by contrast, with a few deft strokes establishes a condition – call it the Native woman as Outsider – and then with a mere nudge pushes us into that identity, drawing as it does on strengths and resources we all hold in common. Valente seems content to create a mystery religion, founded in anger and victimization, the experience of which is limited to initiates, and the mere existence of which is a secret of its own.
Valente has described her work as rich and linguistically intense, and I think in some measure that works against her poetry. While I have no particular animus against a fully-loaded vocabulary as an appropriate tool for writers, I am one who adheres to the idea that the essential part of poetry happens in the spaces between the words, those small echo chambers where meanings become possibilities: it’s a language of connotation, implication, elision, of images reaching toward not-quite-conscious connections to a new reality. The density of Valente’s style is such that she leaves us no room to maneuver: there is an almost claustrophobic feel to this work, as though we had entered a sybilline cave, our path and actions dictated by an arcane ritual we only half understand. I can only contrast someone like Mark Doty, whose images are equally intense (if not quite so bloody), whose diction is equally lush, and yet whose structures are open, the ambiguities invitations to exploration rather than the borders of the forbidden.
Interestingly enough, Valente’s poetry as revealed in these two collections reminds me of nothing so much as the early novels of Tanith Lee — Anackire, The Storm Lord, Volkhavaar — with their new and often surprising take on heroic fantasy as told by a woman: dark, bloody, lunar, with a subliminal sexuality that permeates the narrative, a far cry from the bright heroics of Tolkien or the overarching Weltschmerz of Moorcock, a real sense of the femaleness of the Great Mother, with the reminder that she is as much Hecate as Demeter.
However, in the final analysis, somehow I never found common ground with the reality of these poems. As much poetry as I read (and I’m a confirmed poetry junky for many, many years now), it only stands to reason that I will, from time to time, find a poet with whom I just can’t connect. It’s not a matter of obscurity – it takes work to figure out the likes of Jorie Graham or Robert Duncan – but of some element that I have come to rely on that suddenly is not there.
I remind myself that Valente is still a young writer. That is not a dismissal, but an expectation: she certainly has talent, no doubt on that score, but it’s rather like hearing Mozart’s early symphonies –- there’s no way of knowing that young musician will eventually compose something as overwhelming as the Requiem, and in the meantime you’ve heard Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Haydn’s Creation. Moving into that territory, already occupied by some formidable people, requires not only power but finesse.
(Prime Books, 2005)
(Curiosities [Norilana Books], 2008)