Review: Marys of the Sea by Joanna C. Valente (reviewed by Andrew Sargus Klein)

Marys of the Sea

by Joanna C. Valente

90 Pages

ELJ Editions, 2016


Marys of the Sea, by Joanna C. Valente, maps out a shape of womanhood, gender, and sexuality and the ways society brings violence and judgment onto all three. The speaker in this collection has had to negotiate series of traumas and violence, but they are not undone by them—this is not a collection of defeat. It is full of edges—sharp, defined angles of sexual violence, metamorphosis, many-legged insects—and it is a trajectory of being, of becoming, of continuing to be.

As the title implies, allusions to religion—particularly childbirth and its associative imagery—are threaded throughout, and one and these allusions are often tied to water imagery and metaphor (water as amniotic beginnings, as submergence, as escape, as change, as death). “In the Beginning, Everything Was Water” opens:

In the beginning, I was not

a man. On water I drank

to find home, the blackest

dark. On slugs served,

I ate to understand

color. What a woman

could die from.

Valente’s poems are also concerned with beginnings, with histories. “La Llorona” takes its name from folklore and charts a friendship that starts in childhood swim lessons. The speaker remembers, “you let me love you, let me hear / how you breathe / when you masturbate.” There is an ambiguity surrounding the other person’s gender as the speaker remembers playing make-believe in the way that children do: assigning each other classic gender roles in a heteronormative marriage: “Our story / is the same as others: / we married, you grew bored after three / children, then fell in love with a bus boy / For the children, I kept moving.” The poem ends with one of the more heartbreakingly beautiful moments in the entire collection:

          from the wishbone

of two rivers, I wail for others to come

          —let them be wise enough to stay away.

“They Taught Us How to Be Wives” includes these lines:

the virgin whose uterus

               was left behind in a baby grand

piano which holds

                   a dial phone used for sex

which is now legally a comet ;;;

(The “;;;” appears throughout the work, and while it’s not something I understand on a conscious level, they nonetheless work visually, and I interpret them as carving out a new interpretation of the semicolon—a new means of meter, of breath, of connection.)

“World Parent Myth” riffs on a biblical notion of beginning

Doesn’t matter how it happened.

In the beginning, it started with

a woman & a piece of fruit

& a man who ate the fruit.

but it ends on a darker note:

Maybe you were just a man

who loved wrong

so you decided to clean

my children instead—

introduce white blood

& let purge / violence

is never far from the hands

of men.

This last statement is unfailingly true and can’t be repeated enough. Sexual violence burns throughout the collection, and that violence is inextricably tied to historical ideals of womanhood and childbirth, of sexuality and submission. And as such, tenderness and intimacy can be so limited, so fleeting.  “Magic Hour” ends with this stanza:

it’s natural to be afraid

of ghosts, a man’s memory,

that hour when we were

on earth alone

It is with varying dictions, unexpected associative jumps, and myriad forms, Valente’s poems tie the personal to the historical and the political. There are terrifying moments of self-witness, and the fact that they’re brought to life with eerie calm only heightens the closeness of violence at the hands of men. Valente’s poems are as lyrical as they are calculating, and rather than being isolated within confessionalism, they map something broader and interconnected—a poetics of trauma and myth, religion and violence, witness and growth.

Andrew Sargus Klein

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