Joanna C. Valente
Marys of the Sea
review by David McLean
Obviously with a religious reference in the title, this book is full of powerful poems that create an alternative mythology for the female body in the face of abuse & the exigencies of motherhood together with the obvious alternative, abortion. This is important, since conceptualization and categorization of items within a reality influence how one feels able to interact with and/or challenge that reality. I shall refrain from discussing any feminist message since i am rather old-school & consider that a man does not have a feminist consciousness since he cannot, & feminism involves conscious awareness, with an epistemological privilege that a person possesses qua oppressed. Were I to do so, then Empire would speak, not really me. But the dispossession, & lack of rootedness & reality, is a general theme, it speaks of the lack of autochthonousness that marks the deconstructed self, as bodies scramble in the dirt for identities worth having,.
We are only human, says Valente, when someone is looking. The self is not something we have, just like problems aren’t something we have outside of a social context. The main problem with the late-capitalist socius is that nobody gives a flying fuck who you are: everything, everybody, every body is an object to be used & exploited; it is a resource. & again the oppressed oppress best. It is “some of the women in town” who want Mary punished, just as it is women who very often insist on FGM.
The book is full of perfect references to other poetry. I want to quote in full one short poem that like one that I myself did more verbosely is a tribute “Lullaby” by Auden. Valente’s sampling is much better, though:
Humans, yr sleeping head lies
on arms with no bones.
burn beauty away
with time. Children prove it true.
For now, lie here in my arms
our guilt entirely beautiful.
(Lullaby on the Half Shell)
I don’t read much poetry anymore. This might sound exaggerated but Valente’s poems are a sort of belated consolation for the death of Sylvia Plath. I think they’re that good, & you would be a fool not to read them.