Draw the Black Straw: On Jean Valentine’s “Light Me Down”

By Elizabeth MetzgerApril 8, 2024

Draw the Black Straw: On Jean Valentine’s “Light Me Down”

Light Me Down: The New and Collected Poems of Jean Valentine by Jean Valentine

I MET JEAN on my own creative quest at 22. The summer after I graduated college, I went to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, to take her weeklong workshop. My doubts about whether I was a “real” poet had become as strong as my convictions, and on some level I knew that the best living poet to help with such a reckoning was Jean Valentine. Jean embodied a way of being a poet as a way of being beyond the page. For Jean, poetry is not something one makes, but a form of opening. We felt it in the way she spoke softly while cupping a hand over her ear and tilting it toward us when we spoke, or how she threw her limbs into her laugh or blew kisses to the dead. How could she be reaching toward so many and reaching inward at the same time?

One day, I nervously stopped Jean on the gravel between where we had workshop and where we attended communal readings. The truth is, I don’t remember what I said or asked or if Jean just intuited my need for deep reassurance. I was in-between and she joined me there. Before turning away, she shared an anecdote. I spent the rest of my friendship with Jean from 2011 to 2020 reliving, forgetting, and asking her to remind me. It haunts me that I forget it now though I hold close the feeling of Jean’s vision. Had Elizabeth Bishop come to Robert Lowell in a dream? Had Bishop come to Jean in a dream? Had Bishop heard a voice in her own dream? Marianne Moore? The dream revealed one way or the other that the dreamer was a poet, despite her waking doubts.

The memory itself feels more like a visitation. Jean might have touched her forehead and her heart at once like she was lifting her interior life out of her body to embrace me, but she also might have laughed and broken the silence of whatever workshops were still in progress. As we parted ways on the gravel, I was entering the space she had made: “Door in the mountain / let me in,” a line which echoes again in her new poems (“friend / let me in—”). I now think of that gravel path as the space of being a poet, ever waiting for a poem as Jean knew them—in the voice of a dream.


Anne Marie Macari’s introduction to Light Me Down: The New & Collected Poems of Jean Valentine (2024) is written with deep literary admiration as well as from the personal perspective of a long friendship with Jean. One of Jean’s first readers, Macari makes an important distinction between Jean’s dream process and a reader’s dreamlike experience: “Although she said many times that she wrote from her dreams, we never feel we are watching or hearing about someone else’s dream. Instead we awaken into her dream world, one we recognize though it is wholly new to us.” Rather than recording, Jean’s poems feel like eavesdropping on the mind, trusting it is a world as other as any. I think of John Keats’s fragment “This living hand,” how the speaker’s hand feels uncannily close to the reader, or Emily Dickinson’s “and Finished knowing—then—” pointing us toward presence after absence. Macari describes this quality in Jean, noting her “silence, patience, wildness, presence—she taught us that the other is us.”

With Jean on the other side, and the posthumous emergence of this Collected, one reads and feels in touch with spirit distilled. I hear her voice most when I find myself most silent. Shortly after Jean died, I experienced enduring writer’s block after having a baby. Then I heard Jean’s voice say, “Don’t write with language,” and suddenly the conscious pressure was alleviated. “I came to you,” one of my favorite of Jean’s poems, first published in Door in the Mountain, explores her relationship to silence:

            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.

The speaker blames her desperation for God on the reticence of the world before promptly disavowing her own language: the word reticence, the word world. It is the failure of words that makes us repeat them, that makes them words and invites or enacts the beyond-language. The repetition “Lord Come” beckons the spiritual with sexual longing. It is the “fucking” failure of language, after all, that makes the speaker’s lack almost orgasmic.

Jean was often reticent about describing her own poems and process. Macari tells a wonderful anecdote about a Q and A with Jean in which admiring students at Drew University asked Jean prepared questions about her poetics. After a pause, her response to each question was a clear but pensive “I don’t know.” Never has uncertainty been a greater act of generosity than in Jean’s poems, especially the new ones. Due to Jean’s advanced Alzheimer’s, Macari (and Joan Larkin) helped her gather her poems, but the edits, according to the introduction, were all Jean’s. Since Jean cared about what was “alive” in a poem, rather than the “idea” or “theory,” the position of forgetting moments while facing mortality (no past, no future) might even enhance the sense of these poems’ absolute presence, as in the final poem of the new sequence, “Here”:

Even as I touch you here
I hear whatever
I could never hear or know
away from you.

I hear what we are meant for
outside this room.

A question lies on my bed—
can you tell me?
What is it for the others …
I hear what I could never know

Outside this room or night


Loss was central to Jean’s work. There are countless elegies for artists who were marginalized or who broke form, as well as repeating elegies for her close friends, former selves, animals, even the abortion she had decades earlier. In the new poems (the tone more vim than mourning), we encounter elegies for C. D. Wright, Adrienne Rich, and Max Ritvo, my dear friend, who was already terminally ill when both Jean and I met him.

I remember the way Jean reached for Max’s hand as he showed her his chemo port while laughing so hard at the irreverent way he ventriloquized it that she had to crouch behind her chair to catch her breath. Maybe it was Max’s illness or Jean’s openness, or both of their brains firing in proximity, but there seemed no disparity between our ages or experiences. Jean refused to play the teacher. We got together often with poems by all three of us. She wanted our feedback, really listened. Sometimes she seemed hesitant about what we’d think and flushed with giddiness when Max bowed or applauded.

Jean loved seeing Max perform—as when he spun onstage while reading his poems in front of her in a pink kimono so that everyone in the crowded Greenwich Village venue could be entertained. However, she was also distinctly embarrassed when Max performed equally dramatically at a quiet Greek restaurant in the nabe, as she called Morningside Heights. A few weeks after the embarrassing moment, Jean sent me a draft of the new poem: “For Tomas Tranströmer & Max Ritvo,” in which she blurs the then-dead Nobel Prize–winning poet (who lost the ability to speak after a stroke) with Max, her gifted, ill friend. Anything that had felt like discomfort in the moment was transcended in this dream of reunion and vibrancy.

Each time Max and I would leave Jean’s apartment, or Jean would cross the park to visit us, we parted with talismans: a twig, a found pencil, a Bread and Puppet calendar, a postcard from Mary Ruefle (Jean saw no better way to receive a gift than to give it to another), an I Love Lucy skeleton tee, or a painted box with a bead in it. While Jean’s memory declined, Max and I both moved to California, and maybe because of her anxiety about Max and her own memory, Jean wrote to me almost daily.

After Max died in 2016, Jean stayed with me by email throughout my bed-rest pregnancy, and soon after I gave birth, she developed a sophisticated rapport with my infant son when I brought him to visit her in New York. Nonverbal babbling and gesturing communication came naturally to Jean and she stared deeply into his eyes and mirrored him, putting her fist into her mouth. While extremely playful, it was clear that she took my son’s signs of communication as seriously as our background conversation.

As much as infants, animals inspired brilliant nonverbal exchanges between self and other for Jean. In “Mare and Newborn Foal,” she blurs life and death through a spiritual moment of tenderness:

When you die
there are bales of hay
heaped high in space
mean while
with my tongue
I draw the black straw
out of you
mean while
with your tongue
you draw the black straw out of me.

This lyric moment of intimacy and ecstasy connects not only mother and child but also the life drive for care and connection with the perpetual ache of its ephemerality.


Light has always been vital to Jean’s work (note her 1997 collection’s title, Growing Darkness, Growing Light), but what strikes me about Light Me Down as a title is its directionality and liminality. Several earlier titles, from The Messenger (1979) to Pilgrims (1969), also suggest a journey. The title Light Me Down comes from the first poem in the Collected, illuminating both Jean’s path from this world to the next and our journey into Jean’s poetic world. One might hear refracted in the title lay me down or light me up. Seeing these poems all together in a posthumous context, one grasps the command: the gesture toward death is the gesture back to life.

As her 2010 title Break the Glass or her late poem “Yeats’ Stance” remind us, Jean emerged in a poetry world dominated by men. Though her first book, Dream Barker (1965), won the Yale Younger Poets prize, Jean’s poems became more active and actively resistant as she faced the challenge of sustaining a poetry career as a woman and a mother. For all of their holy silence, they are rarely peaceful. Despite the title of her first collection, her poems evolved into their mysterious forms and enigmatic dreamwork over time. So much of what is emotionally “moving” comes from the way the poems depart from their margins, rebel against syntax, and embrace white space. The poems are wracked, desperate, kinetic, political, and sometimes wild with embodied ecstasy. One of the sexiest treatments of birth I’ve ever read is her poem “The Under Voice”:

            And the under voice said, Stars you are mine,
you have always been mine; I remember the minute on
the birth table
when you were born, I riding with my feet up in the wide
silver-blue stirrups,
I came and came and came, little baby and woman, where
were you taking me?
Everyone else may leave you, I will never leave you, fugitive.

Wound and balm at once—these small, careful poems offer a poetics of boundlessness. No closing line knows better than the penultimate. How can a promise to the unknown be so committed, or for that matter, how can a poetry so mysterious feel so clear? Trust: Hard to rationalize but palpable, much like this line from The River at Wolf (1992): “Blessed are they who remember / that what they now have they once longed for.” Just as the deepest form of nurturing isn’t to know the other but to seek to know the other, Jean reminds me that longing can be nourishing—and to nourish means not only to fill but also to let grow.

Without moralizing, Jean radically gestures back to her abortion throughout her career, developing a powerful relationship that straddles the unborn and the living. It is worth noting that one of these gestures takes place in her tour-de-force long poem “Lucy,” a fragmented homage to our first human ancestor:

            I rush outdoors into the air you are
and you rush out to receive me
At last there you are
who I always knew was there
and almost died not
when my scraped-out child
died Lucy
you hold her, all the time.

The way she keeps the aborted alive in poetry is closely related to the way she lets herself be claimed by the first mother, who for Jean is also the mother of poetry. This “scraped-out child” is like a future reader—a human who never shared the earth with Jean yet will still be held and deeply known by her.


My last phone call with Jean was painful, involving her politely pretending she remembered me until I mentioned Max (she was overjoyed as soon as I said his name). After we hung up, I knew I would not call again, but I began to look back and ask myself: How did that one-week workshop in Provincetown lead to Jean letting me into the last decade of her life? How did I end up in the kitchen in the building with gargoyles? I remember how easy she made it to buzz up, wander out of the elevator on the eighth floor and down the labyrinthine hall to the one door that was already open.

Though she struggled with her memory near the end of her life, Jean’s vividness in retelling stories was clearer than mine for most of our friendship. This is true with her stories of the spider at a Virginia residency that led to “Lucy”; memories of living in Ireland, driving with Seamus Heaney, parenting alongside Adrienne Rich; advice from Galway Kinnell. Was it Richard Howard walking with her in the Yaddo Gardens who said she was not a monster? During those years, I felt I knew all of her stories, heard them many times, asked for them like a child at bedtime, ready to dream them. And despite the way her words changed me repeatedly, I cannot narrate the stories back to you. I cannot even recall the facts of them.

While this reminds me constantly of the unbearable loss of Jean, a missing heart in the ether, I am also reminded of where Jean’s poems reside and the part of the mind they open. They are not the poems of remembering or retelling. They are not poems of intention, and they refuse to explain. They are the dream process for keeps, immune to the idea of forgetting as a failure of mind. Her poems are polyvocal offerings to others, from others. They are talismans in process, doors ajar. We enter them, and what’s unsaid is a solace.

There on the gravel between weathered shingles in Provincetown, or huddled on the corner of Broadway, or in the light of her living room, I can hear Jean assuring me that I don’t need to correct myself or tell the story accurately. Jean’s reverence for silence and the unsayable makes forgetting itself an opening to presence and joy and suffering and intimate togetherness, like that deep laugh I could never believe came dancing out of her.

Once she erased my doubts about being a poet, we often talked about love, all forms (ageless romance, art, families, place), each of us taking turns wondering what we already felt intimate with and what we wanted more of. She bemoaned her friends’ suffering, beamed about her granddaughters or her companion Monty, asked to see pictures of our beloveds, always added new writers’ names to sing of along with her familiars. When I came home to New York for a whirlwind trip and knocked on her door unannounced, Fred Marchant had just stopped by for a spontaneous visit as well. Jean did not call it “bad timing” or regret that she was “busy.” Just the opposite: She beckoned me in, throwing her hands up to the cosmos. Fred and I both knew this was neither luck nor heaven; Jean was the fate that brought others together. Though we came for her wisdom, we left with her questions. Her poems, too, stay alive by asking. They trust that the reader might know.

I find in Jean’s new poems a refreshing childlike quality alongside lifelong gratitude, welcoming us into the midst of play with an intuitive sense of belonging: “Old life, / I’m glad, all my rubbed life, I was found, / I was written on a wall in air.” I think of Jean, like a pilgrim, trespassing (or did she receive permission?) on Dickinson’s grave on a snowy day to make the rubbing that hung on her wall. I could see the action in the artifact, the darker pressing around the epitaph “Called Back” as the snow fell and blurred and erased. I will forever open the Collected and elect Jean my guide to “the rubbed life.” According to Macari’s introduction, near the end of her life, Jean would edit her own poems, and then ask, “Did I write that?” She was never the authority of her poems. Rather, the existence of poetry was her greatest source of vitality. While we can usually assume that the voice goes out with the body, after reading Light Me Down, I can say with nervy, embodied delight, “I don’t know.”

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Metzger is the author of Lying In (2023), as well as The Spirit Papers (2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the chapbook Bed (2021). Her poems have been published in The New YorkerThe Paris ReviewPoetryAmerican Poetry ReviewThe Nation, and Poem-a-Day. Her essays have been published in Boston Review, Guernica, Conjunctions, PN Review, and Literary Hub, among others. She is a poetry editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and lives in California.


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