Our Mosaics of Aches – A Tribute to American Poet Jean Valentine (April 27th, 1934- December 29th, 2020)


American poet Jean Valentine (1934-2020). Photo Credit: The New York Times


A man whose arms and shoulders
and hands and face and ears are covered with bees
says, I’ve never known such pain.
Another man comes over
with bees all over his hands—
only bees can get the other bees off.
The first man says again,
I’ve never known such pain.
The second man’s bees begin to pluck
the first grave yellow bees off, one by one.

Jean Valentine (April 27th, 1934-December 29th, 2020) from Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems 1965-2003, Wesleyan University Press, 2004

Jean Valentine, the much-awarded American poet who died in late 2020, often wrote condensed poems like this one above. It may seem mysterious. What’s with the bees? But the imagery is arresting.  And it might help to know that Valentine was a recovering alcoholic. It is always tricky to read a poem knowing a poet’s biographical information but it can help. Gives a lens.

I was reminded of Jean thanks to a Facebook post by Ilya Kaminsky on April 27th, the anniversary of Jean’s birth in nineteen thirty-four. I had meant to write a blog post celebrating her life and poetry when she died but time passed. So, what a great time at the end of 2023 National Poetry Month to celebrate her with this signature minimalist poem. And its abrupt and unexpected juxtaposition of opposites so evident in her poetry.

Oh, this kind of crazy. This opposition: one man’s hands covered in bees, the man in agony and crying out: I’ve never known such pain. And another man with bees all over his hands, but not crying out offers his bees to remove the other man’s. Crazy! But is it?

Isn’t it only when we surrender to our wounding, to our pain that others can help? And isn’t it so true that that someone, metaphorically, who has bees all over their hands but who, perhaps, is not in pain or at least is in manageable pain, but has suffered in a similar way, can offer the truest support, can be most effective in bringing healing to the one in pain?

And I think of men in women in their earliest days of recovery from addictions who so often go to twelve step meetings where others in recovery bring their bees, their pain, to share to let the newcomers know they are not alone and to give then hope for on-going recovery.

And this makes me think of this quote from the celebrated writer Elizabeth Acevedo who won the 2018 National Book Award for Children’s Literature for her novel in verse, Poet X, when she was thirty! Last year the Poetry Foundation named her the American Young People’s Poet Laureate!

The girl at the detention center asks why do we have to write these damn poems anyway, folds back the army knife on her tongue. This is not the place to create more bruises. Teaching creative writing is convincing skin to graft itself after wounding. We should not teach and harm.….We are all working on our own mosaic of aches so that when the girl at the detention center asks you again why we got to write these damn poems anyways you tell her we write to remind ourselves we are still here and that we can still heal.

— Elizabeth Acevedo from the on-line #Epic Reads introduction to her verse novel Poet X , winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature announced on Nov.14th, 2018.

Such an echo for me in Jean’s poem with the Acevedo quote. Aren’t we all working on our mosaic of aches. But if we pretend we don’t have them how can we get help ? How can others ask for our help? And Jean’s poem agrees. How it can be so healing to share our mosaic of aches. And how, literally, Jean’s poem is a reminder to Jean and her readers that she, and we, are still here and we can still heal.

Gut-punch of a great poem. And Ilya’s post included another of Jean’s shorter poems and one that also could apply to men and women in recovery. But also to any of use suffering as we humans do from so many afflictions, at any given time, here, in this given world. Here it is:

    I came to you

I came to you
Lord, because of
the fucking reticence
of this world
no, not the world, not reticence, oh
    Lord Come
    Lord Come
We were sad on the ground
    Lord Come
We were sad on the ground.

Jean Valentine from Door in the Mountain, ibid

What a poem of surrender. No matter what “Lord” might mean to me or you.  Surrendering to something, at the very least, bigger than our egos, our sense of self. And the mystery of “the reticence of this world”. What does it mean. Then the denials. And then the utter surrender. And I wonder if reticence refers to us, to the we. Our reticence to living our biggest lives.

Or does the “fucking reticence” means something else as the American poet, Kaveh Akbar says in a reflection on this poem in The Paris Review. Like Jean was,  Kaveh is in recovery from addictions.

I came to surrender because of the fucking reticence of the world. That makes sense to me. If the whole world loved what I loved (in my case, alcohol and various choice narcotics) as much as I did, there’d be no need for surrender. My behavior would be totally understood by all. But the world’s reticence, its “fucking reticence” brought me to my knees. But then Jean goes into hyperdrive—“no, not the world, not reticence, oh.” And that “oh”! The volumes I could write around that “oh”!

 Thank you Ilya for celebrating Jean a few days ago. It was good to encounter her and her poems again.

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