by Jean Valentine
Sarabande Books 2009
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
In this diminutive chapbook (#8 in Sarabande’s Quarternote series), big fish Jean Valentine pays tribute to Lucy, the intact skeleton of the oldest known human ancestor. Lucy, the pith of Valentine’s poems, becomes a vehicle for the exploration of a series of universal unknowns including death, loss, and loneliness. Valentine interrogates death and its mysterious qualities. She writes, “I am close to death / and close to life.” In many ways, life and death are one, living and dying synonyms; they are inseparable and one gives value to the other. For Valentine, Lucy is a barometric tool with which we might gauge the common human experience.
But it is not exclusively human life that Valentine is interested in. Rather, all lives, and thereby all deaths, are exigent in Lucy. Valentine points to the life and death of a spider to demur the idea that one life or one death is more pervasive than another: “The spider / in her web three days / dead on the window Lucy.” Death is ubiquitous, and it is mitigating, rendering us equal. But there is much to be learned from any single death—in particular Lucy’s, as she is wholly lost, nothing but bones, as she is effectively anonymous, the lost soldier that all losses constitute when enough time has passed.
So generally, Lucy and her bones present a forum for exploring loss. Valentine writes, “when my scraped-out child died Lucy / you hold her, all the time.” Lucy as the mother of death, a keeper of souls. Though her life experience was surely nothing like the modern human’s, Lucy experienced death. If she is the first human death there is sufficient record of, she is an appropriate counterweight to all that are lost and forgotten, to all that is lost and forgotten.
Valentine places something like trust in Lucy, trust to keep, preserve, or at the very least represent those that our poet has lost and can no longer touch. Lucy is something of a treat from Valentine, a spare series of spare poems from a significant poet. More big fish should devolve into the chapbook form. Lucy’s bones, a mark of raw, if even bland humanness, are a quick idea, artfully rendered. They are emblematic of the emptiness everyone becomes, as Valentine indicates once—“I rush outdoors into the air you are” and again—“Your skeleton / standing about, like a wildflower…”