Jean Valentine (photo: Tyler Flynn Dorholt)
What I know about change, I’ve learned from the line break. Never ran this hard through the valley / never ate so many stars, Jean Valentine writes, daring you to guess what happens to her next. Like a Counting Crows promise replaying in my head, something child and vulnerable in me wants to believe “this year will be better than the last.” But quarantine—like a locksmith—copies my every day into sameness. It’s been a metronome of writing and work, in between video chats to Gambia with my nephews, first teeth sprout in the newest one’s mouth. I want to believe “I am changing” behind some curtain with the same control Jennifer Hudson calls up when she sings it, but as a poet, it’s more like I’m standing at the edge of someone else’s line break. I am changing—though, from this vantage point, I can’t yet see how.
I interviewed Valentine on December 19, 2013, for a now closed poetry journal where I was an editor. She was eighty-one and had invited me to her Morningside Heights apartment. Between us were fifty-two years and a plate of cookies she set on the table. I’d found her poetry my first year of grad school and each poem had planted in me something tender—inexplicably true—as a land mine that set itself off. And so, when news of her death broke through the world, it leaped. As though over the lacuna a line break creates.
Like so many, upon hearing, I thought of her seminal poem “Door in the Mountain,” and found myself, once again, at the mountain’s base. I was carrying a dead deer / tied to my neck and shoulders but had only, in the last few months, realized that that dead deer had named itself America. Deer legs hanging in front of me / heavy on my chest.
Over the course of three hours, Valentine told me Sylvia Plath had set her on fire. She said, “I think it’s hard on the people who are the firsts.” Like it was a promise she was giving me, “human nature can change. I have seen it change, I have.” And when I said sometimes your gods disappoint you, she nodded, “Sometimes your goddesses, too.”
There were five years when she didn’t write. She’d lost her publisher, her relationship. Her therapist had died. Then, her language came back. Once again, poems fashioned themselves from her dreams. “You are dreaming for humanity,” she told me of mine. What she wanted of poetry was “someone who is just going to go to the absolute end of their rope for this thing.”
She was a poet who could carve both stillness and speed from the gap and one who, for me, lit the match. She was the poet who first taught me to obsess over the responsibility of the line break and in her house, she held her shoulders like a woman no longer afraid to let it be known she liked to be amused. Whatever she and her line breaks had been through, she’d long ago found the courage to say.
People are not wanting /—“How much breath,” she asked me in her living room, “do you need to get where you want to go?”—to let me in.
For years of my adolescence, it was like the Counting Crows’ “Long December” was always on. I had a loneliness in me so big, yet so compact, it could have been shaped like a Jean Valentine poem. “Long December” was stagnation in a song. It was a song about time not changing, time being endless, and yet, in that space, so much still feeling possible. A song about living inside a seeming contradiction. Which, in poetry, is one of the mechanisms that makes the leaps of a good line break work. A great line break has music, can hold between it the melancholy of a teenager with the loneliness of a nineties lead singer and the improv of jazz. All you have to do is close your eyes and jump to know what I mean.
The best line breaks, like Jean Valentine’s, disrupt the connections you think are possible. It makes you trust yourself to the gap. Using everything you’ve ever known and forgotten, your mind and your imagination construct a bridge beneath you in real time. Suddenly, instead of “minding the gap,” you cross it. Studying her poems, I learned I could build a bridge between anything I loved—a poet, a song.
All those years ago in her living room, over tea and cookies—were they chocolate or were they gingersnaps?—Valentine told me of her difficult times and her uncertain ones. I didn’t recognize it then, but she was giving me the narrative arc of what change can be. It involved failure, chance, relationships—both romantic and platonic—a sense of humor, and sad songs you learn to cherish because even if in the passing decades they don’t hold up, they still have a way of keeping you standing. “Maybe I’m just untouched by embarrassment,” she’d said, smiling from behind a memory she’d learned to be gentle with. “I do look back and see foolishness. It doesn’t bother me too much. I think the main thing is to keep going.”
Change involves people you loved turning into glass, others into ghosts. No writing for five years. It means a break in the line you thought you’d been making. It’s writing the gap in order to cross it. Jean Valentine’s line breaks are the music, the dream, the ends between two points. The breaks trust us, make bridge-builders of us all.
Door in the mountain
let me in
“Door in the Mountain” is a poem of faith and change. We surrender to both. Every line break, a trust fall, and oh my god, the poet has caught you. Jean Valentine reminding us: waiting can be a form of change. In a crag, can be an entrance.
All over Brooklyn, tossed firs overwhelm the January air with Christmas’s carcasses. My father texts a painting he’s rendering from a photograph my wife took of the Grand Canyon. He purples ancient rock, Arizona sky—his brush showing us, day by day, what millennia do to color. These small moments are the beads I move across the abacus of our stand-still lives to promise myself time is passing. In my country that doesn’t play fair, I’m hoping the same predictable day waits for me behind America’s trapdoors. In a country that is always attacking Black people, COVID’s uncertainties are a reminder that the devil you know can become its own blessing.
From Valentine, I know it’s possible to grow weary, to be generous, and to laugh locked outside the mountain’s door. And if, in searching for a way in, I lose my words, I know from her that my words will take me back.
The final stanza of the poem is a leap through time, dimension, and possibility. The line break reminds me, though the door is not open—child, finally, you have found the mountain’s door. You see, people are not wanting to let you in. Change makes the mountain out of us. You think you can’t make it, and then suddenly there’s how far you’ve come.
Hafizah Geter is a Nigerian-American poet, writer, editor, and literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit. She is the author of the debut poetry collection Un-American from Wesleyan University Press, longlisted for the 2021 PEN Open Book Award. Hafizah’s poetry and prose have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Boston Review, Longreads, and The Yale Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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