And all the things that came—
the awful, and the love on earth, OK?
my own friend? Where you are?1
I learned of Jean’s death as I have learned of most things during this pandemic: social media. Mindlessly scrolling on my couch, I came across a friend’s post, my breath caught, my stomach clenched, and I felt both completely blindsided, and also not at all. For more than a year, I had been thinking almost daily about Jean—particularly when I practiced metta, or loving kindness meditation, which asked me to bring to mind a mentor, and when doing the Seven Homecomings meditation developed by Lama Rod Owens, which involves calling mentors and teachers in for support.2
Over the course of our friendship, our habits of writing, talking, and visiting each other ebbed and flowed. Much of the ebb and flow had to do with my negotiation of a busy schedule and moving through a doctoral program. But the last time I’d written, a few months had gone by and I didn’t hear from her, then a few months passed before I tried again. Nothing. I started to fear that something was wrong, knowing that she had gotten sick in the past, and that her memory was gradually failing. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this, but my fear became a block—I tried to work up my resolve to call, and told myself that it was okay for it to take some time.
In late December, I spent a long weekend up in Ithaca, at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, where I had returned over the past several years to write poems and, more recently, to finish my dissertation. This was my first post-dissertation visit and I brought with me Jean’s last book, Shirt in Heaven, the publication of which I had assisted her with. As expected, that weekend, I fell back into a state of reverie and curiosity, the dream-place of poem-making. One morning, wanting to connect to Jean, who always reminded me that I was a “forever poet,” I looked up some of her email correspondence. I ended up spending the next couple hours reading over our entire history of email exchange.
The next week, I learned that she died on a Tuesday night, December 29th, the last full moon of 2020. Perhaps I sensed her imminent departure. I don’t know. But when I learned of her death, I felt the double arrow of loss and regret. One of the ways I have experienced this time of social isolation and quarantine has been the notion that, on the other side of it, I would be reunited with loved ones. Losing people within this temporal vacuum, being denied the rituals of leave-taking, is sadly one of the hallmarks of this pandemic. So I turn to writing as a ritual of letting-go, of witnessing and honoring a life. Jean’s body of work: several collections of poetry, chapbooks, translations, critical writing, countless collaborations, remains with us, to continue to find refuge, truth, and inspiration within—but she is gone.
You. Did you ever think
you could do something useful?
What I would like you to know about Jean, if you were not fortunate to have known her in this life, was that her presence was as full of wonder as her poems, and also that she was deeply invested in the common terrain of humanness. I knew Jean during a particular era of life, circa 2012-2018, and do not lay claim on any comprehensive knowledge of her outside of the few years we were friends. Jean was a loyal friend to so many, and she spoke to her friends of her other friends eagerly, as if she wished we could all experience each other as she did. She was an enthusiastic follower and supporter of so many poets, especially younger ones. She was also a mother and a grandmother, a sister—the extended family that she created for herself was wide and ever-growing, and, of course, not populated only by the living.
I met Jean as a teacher, in a poetry workshop at the 92nd St. Y, back in 2011. At our first conference, feeling timid, I told her that I loved her book, Little Boat. When no flash of recognition crossed her face, I felt that I may have misremembered the title. I looked at her quizzically, “That’s the title?” She responded, calmly and with no pretension to pride, but rather as recalling a distant life, “Yes, I wrote a book with that title.” This is quintessential Jean—unattached, rooted in the present.
Jean taught for decades, at Sarah Lawrence College, and elsewhere. By the time I studied under her, I saw that she no longer was interested in guiding or improving poems—she wanted only to linger in the wonder of them. She told me that a poem I wrote was “the strangest poem she had ever seen” and that was a high compliment coming from her. In short, Jean was delighted by poetry, sustained by it.
For a teacher, and for a public figure at that, Jean was remarkably open. When she recognized a kindred soul—usually, but not always, a poet—she pursued the relationship with passion. We were over forty years apart in age, but she always acted as if I had so much to teach her. Our conversations took place in her kitchen mostly, on stools, with her offering me soup and salad, bread, tea. Often we walked to the Italian or Greek restaurant nearby where the owners and staff all greeted her heartily. Our conversations were lively, filled with questions but also laughter. Jean had a wicked sense of humor—the kind I think of as survivor humor—that was able to expose the weak side of power, power that nonetheless continues to act on us.
I look at the many elegiac poems that she wrote to teachers and mentors who passed on and I feel them cycling through me now, reaching out to her. There is a poem from her last book that ends with the line, Don’t ever think you’re a monster.4 The line is spoken to her by the spirit of a teacher. When I first read that poem, years ago, I felt a sharp squeeze in my chest. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I had deeply needed someone to say that to me, that I had been believing, for most of my life, that I was, in fact, some kind of monster.
Jean, more than anyone else in the world, always brought out the best version of myself. When I spent time with her, I felt so incredibly honest—so full of heart—so good. I spoke about many difficult topics with her, and she listened, shared her own.
To call Jean a guru or a Boddhisattva, an enlightened one, is tempting. She had the quality of deep attention and care that marks the great teachers and spiritual leaders. Jean liked to hold “office hours” at the Rubin Museum. We spoke often about meditation. Her poems speak of and to Jesus, Mary, God, she prayed—but I wouldn’t necessarily call her religious. She was deeply spiritual. But she did not transcend suffering. Jean was intimately familiar with pain, and confusion, and loss—and she stayed with them.
We used to joke that we had both somehow ended up committed to writing of the dead—that death was our “subject” so to speak. But it was not a joke, really. It was one of the things that brought us together. A sense of grief that recurred, an inability to evade questions, fears, and hopes concerning the world of the dead. Jean was visited often by her dead, perhaps because she needed them to; she in turn, sat with them in and through her poems.
Maybe more than anything, Jean was a survivor who learned to thrive in the everyday world of small pleasures and heartfelt interactions. The lines of deep feeling that Jean extended from herself to others, like Whitman’s “filament, filament, filament”5 was one of compassion; Jean had a clean understanding of the interconnectedness of injustice. She pushed herself to understand, in her eighties, the contemporary state of the world—the messy racial politics of a society in transition, the imminence of environmental collapse, the hatred and violence that characterized the Trump presidency. She listened to public radio, and sought out thinkers across disciplines who engaged with the problems of our time.
While her poems were not “political” in the sense of her close friend and peer Adrienne Rich, they created small pockets of feeling, a spiritual depth where the past could breath and where new futures could be imagined. Jean and I had a writing practice for a while called “little white field” where we exchanged short poems that could fit on an index card. In one, she wrote,
gentleness by the fire6
Patience can be a kind of abiding, a willingness to witness, to be touched. I think there is a greater cultural understanding now of the importance of rest and meditation, of quiet, to social transformation.7 Of the need to start with the excavation of the self. For Jean, and through her, poetry is a room where we can hear ourselves.
In the photo I have included here, Jean and I are standing in a room at Dia:Beacon that was full of Agnes Martin’s paintings—paintings from her late series Innocent Love (1999).8 I asked Jean to close her eyes and let her body take the form it received from the paintings. Jean’s arms reach upwards, my arms reach out. We are pictured here together, in movement, still.
- “Are all the things” Shirt in Heaven, Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press (2015) 41.
- Lama Rod Owens, Love and Rage, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2020.
- “In Memory,” Little Boat, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, (2007) 5.
- “A leaf, a shadow-hand,” Shirt in Heaven, Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press (2015) 21.
- From one of Jean’s favorite Walt Whitman poems, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”
- Jean Valentine, email correspondence with the author, March 31, 2015.
Note: This has much to do with the leadership of younger Black organizers and cultural workers who are seeking to sustain long-term transformation and drawing upon he work of pioneering Black feminist theorists to do so.
Agnes Martin (1912-2004) was an American painter who lived most of her life in solitude, developed a kind of renegade spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic framework. From 2008- 2017, Dia:Beacon mounted a large exhibition of her works, which we visited. https://www.diaart.org/program/past-programs/agnes-martin-exhibition/year/2008