Pilot Light
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Instable Grammar

I’m going to talk about grammar by first talking about the word “God.” Depending on the context of its use and the grammar and the syntax of its application, I can take “God” to be a blessed word for a reality, a blessed fiction, a cursed fiction, the first half of a curse word. Etcetera. How I hear this word depends on context, and on an internal level context relies on grammar. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God.” There’s a Christian koan for you. The word was once holy, and that holiness was with word as, say, a woman might be with child, or, say, as a friend might be in the presence of another friend. And, to universalize, all spiritual growth, all growth of any kind, all creation myths religious or secular even before they begin evidence the motive of the most simply inclusive of all prepositions, and the first word of this first sentence of the Book of John, “in.”

The god-word of the nineteenth and twentieth century, and perhaps for this century as well, is “life.” Try substituting the word “life” for the word “God” and you have virtually the same mysterious syntax and the same powerful poetics of the spirit and the word. What wouldn’t change is the grammar. The first clause would still be a mirror construction of two independent clauses. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was life.” The sentence would end with a nearly identical prepositional phrase as the strange, gravid, if not downright pregnant and expectant side of the connective verb (the copula): “and the word was with life.” The grammar would still defy all logic, not excepting, perhaps, cause and effect.

Not the word choice, then, that creates such dizzying correspondences here. The word “Life” can be used just as effectively as the word “God” to beg complicated questions, and just as effectively as a means of a deception. It makes just as bruising a moral cudgel: take the phrase “pro-life” for example. The source of mystery to this first sentence of the Gospel of John is the instable grammar of a relatively straightforward syntax. However you stack the key nouns up, they seem to keep shifting positions.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God. Is it too much to say that every time one reads this sentence it is as new as ever? Forget for a moment the grammatical terms “subject” and “complement.” “In the beginning” acts as a noun. “With God” acts as a noun. Both reference “the word.” The nouns “God” and “word” swim, shift place, become interchangeable. The sentence is as a mobius strip. The nouns do not remain in stable grammatical place: they are, as parts of speech, put in an instable relationship. You can’t ever get on top of this sentence or find where it ends or where it begins. You can try but you can’t. It seems absolutely categorical, and it is syntactically, but the phrases change places with each other like imposters in broad daylight.

Instability: a source of action. Instability: a condition of change. Instability: a key element of any lucid and humane practice of any belief system and, conversely, of any truthful revelation of the darkest skepticism.

So a good portion of a sentence’s sound is its grammar. It works on us subliminally. In Jean Valentine’s work, the parts of speech are part and parcel utterly of themselves, and because they are and because they are placed exactly where they are found, they provide footing in earthly progress and in spiritual growth. With lines broken sometimes to a level below or beyond parsing and stanzas crosshatched by lineation, parts of speech are as stepping stones across—well, it is the poet’s job to bring us as far as the crossable—. Valentine’s poems have the economy of a stream or lake or pond where it is most likely to reflect the heavens, where it comes in to shore, with the trees up there in the heavens and at your feet, and the zigzag flutter of leaves. I will not say that her poems have depth because depths—say, of a body of water—are opaque to the eye and yield far less life and no reflection. I think her poems are spoken across distances that have depths, from a shore that all shores hold in common.

In Valentine’s work grammar is a set of instabilities as much as it is a set of rules. Of course you have to know the rules for her poems to have their subliminal effects, but you don’t have to go to graduate school. Anyone who has read enough words and all the single letters that comprise words—and grammar comes from gramma, Latin for “letter”—can feel the effect of letters and words, as in poetry both are as natural as breath and as earthly as the same.

It’s Valentine’s deep grammar as much as any other gift that informs the technique—and surely technique informs the gift her poems are—that in turn enacts her genius. Her poems are certainly not speeches, they are too quickened by speech for that. By parts of speech. Parts of speech enact the genius of her poems. Genius, from genii. Guardian spirit, the dictionary says. “Break the glass,” the title of her newest book asks of its readers. The universal bottled in a seamless container, a lantern of care, the ether of wishes and longings and care, and this container, this “glass” broken—is a broken glass empty or full? Either way I am restored. Read—that is, listen:

“In Prison”

In prison
without being accused

or reach your family
or have a family       You have

heart trouble


(“we lost the baby”)
no meds

no one
no window

black water
nail-scratched walls

your pure face turned away

who the earth was for.

Let’s say for a moment the poem begins in medias res, or more specifically, in the midst of a sentence—yet in the midst of what feels like a pause rather than the rush of Aristotelian drama. The absence of reference or a subject for this sentence calls into question reference altogether, but it also intimates the person whose imprisonment the poem is about. This sentence that seemingly has no subject has as a consequence more subject, more a sense of the speaker’s literally distanced but spiritually intimate connection with this person. Both his (her?) or her (his?) identity is a mystery. The mystery any one friend remains to another friend is taken by faith in this poem that addresses an imprisoned and possibly missing and possibly gone-to-death friend as an absence. That mystery is, and an essay can only report this far more glibly than the poet would, a presence.

Then without predication active or passive, a series of adverbial appositions to the absent subject and its absent verb. You have to read at the surface not in the depths of this poem to hear these. “Without being accused” is an adverbial clause to a missing verb, acted upon or in conjunction with a missing noun. “Or reach your family” is an outright weird moment of grammar. It is an adverbial phrase but in and of itself it is also a clause to a missing verb and the missing subject: a verb clause not an adverb clause: so the lines are not grammatically parallel. Some force has pushed the poem past a stable grammar. Or read the phrases here as objects to the preposition “without” and put hyphens to see how that would work: “without . . . reach-your-family . . . . have-a-family.” The grammar here is a grammar of need and it has been stretched, one might say, beyond human limits, human “have-a-family.” Then the word “You” beginning with an uppercase “y” and a breathless, almost asthmatic caesura seems to begin a new sentence, “You have.” “You have” for just an instant in and of itself is also a sentence with an intransitive verb. “You have”: what else can be said at this point to wholly dignify a person suffering the cruelty of such enclosure. What, that is, can a friend or sympatico say? Then the sentence falls off a cliff of a line into a canyon of silence, an unspoken hesitation that is a form of indecision that itself is a form of readiness. Then the series of direct objects that assert and reassert . . . not “have” as possession, but “have” as simple belongings. Belongings that become less tangible, like the parenthetical “(we lost the baby)”—a memory, a memory of a loss, and a scantest belonging imaginable: this wilderness of dispassion and disenfranchisement is clearly about the deprivation of almost any sense of belonging except for some commonality of grammar found in the empathic voice of the speaker. And “conscience” in apposition with “heart trouble” and “asthma” and both in apposition with “manic depressive,” an institutional label that belittles as much as it classifies. Can you hear that? Can you hear how grammar can be the sound of oppression in the most profound way that oppression exists, in helpful seeming categorization? The voice of the poet is running through the jots and tittles of a last list. And—it bears returning to—that sentence within a sentence, “we lost the baby”—it exists outside lyric impulse, I think. The parentheses are brutal. After the two stress pattern of “no one,” “no window,” “black water,” the flesh meets only the imperturbable, the three-stretched line “nail-scratched walls.”

Then the past participial phrase “your pure face turned away,” the most truly beautiful line of the poem. Here again the grammar is a quantum grammar. This delicate line can be read as one last direct object for the verb “have” in line four, or it can be read as the subject of the heart-rending sentence that follows. The instability of the grammar is mind-boggling, your pure face turned away itself a sentence, a sentence within a sentence—an effect prose can’t pull off. It is also an ablative absolute serving as the subject of the predicated “embarrassed // you / who the earth was for.” The “you” is made to feel embarrassed for having a pure face. There is another reading yet: the face has been turned away, or REJECTED: it is an offering lost on the authorities. And “you.” The shortest line and the quietest, yet most insistent line of the poem: it seems to have a dignity beyond grammatical logic. Or it exists in grammar as a part of speech and it exists apart from grammar as a holiest word—the word that’s the hardest for the speaker to utter—of the poem. The final clause is dependent in spirit as well as in grammar: the “You” used to be able to depend on the earth. The “you,” that is, used to be able to count on the earth. The you has been asserted—or it has asserted itself—only for the saddest grammatical consequence of the poem to take place, the inflection of the present tense of “have” in “You have” into the past tense of “turned” and “was for.” And yet the last line itself almost seems to wrest itself quietly free of all the prior images that rest on it. It carries the sound of some affirmation that surpasses the vanishing points of elegy.

This poet has an uncanny ear for every aspect of grammar. I am tempted to say that no poet writing today has as so spiritually articulate a grammar as this poet. Awareness in her poems requires an astoundingly complex grammar and an equally astounding subtlety of presentation. And yet at the same time the poems in Break The Glass seem to say themselves off away from the safeties of the printed page: oral necessities override grammar and even complicate it in due keeping with complicated questions about the human spirit. This essay belabors a grammatical method that belabors absolutely nothing: Valentine’s work is at once too focused and too kinetic for deliberate Herculean cleansings of the stalls of tradition, and if their starting points seem incidental rather than monumental, this is because this poet is seized by and not seizing her subjects. I think you can hear that in the grammar, phrase by unpredictable phrase.

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