Discord, Harmony, And The Sea Beyond: A Review Of Joanna C. Valente’s Marys Of The Sea (The Operating System, 2017)

By Paul S. Rowe

Joanna C. Valente’s Marys of the Sea is a lionhearted collection of poems that bravely speak to injury and recovery, motherhood and loss, creation and death, meaning and oblivion. Most often, creation mingles with destruction. Valente’s sea is a soup composed equally of death and life reminiscent of Hesiod’s aphros—the foamy concoction of bodily fluids from which Venus springs to breathe her reproductive energy into the world. Yet, as Valente reminds us, the energy of life is not always restorative. It can be damaging, even damning. As in the following poem “Siren Song,” unborn children in the womb are addressed through apostrophe as sea creatures, uncanny entities floating between life and death:

Were you in me, I do not know.
By morning, beta fish fought for dominance

—plucked them out, my penance not
to pray but to lose all words I love.

Yes—sea demon—swimming in my belly
reshaping woman, I flushed you down

the toilet on the river going through

a phantom spinal cord. Riding waves.

Valente positions life as a senseless battle for dominance. This struggle is enacted through embattled beta fish. Within the poem, as within the womb, the antipodes of life and death are held in vicarious amniotic balance. The poem’s divided psyche, torn between self-preservation and guilt, is expressed through sporadic caesuras near the middle of lines such as “Were you in me, I do not know,” “reshaping woman, I flushed you down,” and the closing “…phantom spinal cord. Riding waves.” This ambivalent connection between mother and child is continuously fractured by spasmodic silence.

The first cause of all things here, as in the corpus of Valente’s vision, is not a god, but the lingering traumas that exist inside us from birth, reshaping personality, attitude, and spirit. Here, the “sea demon” has unwittingly transformed its mother, leading the poet to restructure the broken psyche, lending abstract fears, paranoias, and feelings of guilt a body with which to navigate the nebulae. This vessel, much like Valente’s body of poetry, seeks a shore to wash up from life’s tempest.

“I will / extract each memory, / attach words, then / reinsert,” writes Joanna C. Valente in the poem “Mary & Joseph Build a House Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” a microcosm of the entire collection Marys of the Sea. The same poem ends with the following three stanzas:

Behind yr mouth
is the text I want to read—

we don’t speak—barely
audible moans coalescing

among white noise. 100
yrs ago, there was no
white noise, only the earth
speaking out loud.

As humans, we try
to find perfect pitch—
there’s a torpedo going off
outside. It won’t stop.

Rather than “speaking,” Valente’s lines converge to compose the poem’s body of meaning. The ineffectuality of a solitary voice uttered in the void is granted purpose. Those “barely / audible moans coalescing / among white noise” convey the act of intercourse as one of bridging, and work to forge with “white noise” a dreamy cosmic soundtrack for Valente’s remarkable book. In this poem, “Mary & Joseph” build a “house under the Brooklyn bridge,” yet the respite is not a space of reprieve, but rather one of intense grief. There is both comfort and despair in two voices seeking harmony with the “speaking” earth. One emerges from the union of a relationship forever haunted by dim recollections of the shadow of harmony: discord. Through Marys of the Sea, this harmonious discord becomes a Valentian trope reminiscent of the Miltonic “darkness visible.”

Ultimately, Valente’s project is to detain, tame, and revivify psychic fragments back into corporality through carefully spun poetic lines. Valente begins her stunning poem “Creation Myth” as follows:

You ask me why I never pressed

charges. I drink the rest of my gin & tonic,
begin to tell you how a man

discovered eternal life in 1988. He found
it on the ocean floor. Instead of dying,
jellyfish age in reverse—bury themselves

until tiny flecks rise in gleams, endlessly
rocking. An injured medusa will sink
& reabsorb into the ocean floor—

it will wait. Eventually, a polyp will form
to reproduce a medusa. The easiest way

to make a jellyfish regenerate

is to mutilate it. It does not feel when attacked.

Here, polyps form to carry on the project of life and each strenuous line pushes on the next to instantiate the speaker’s heightened desire to be reborn, Phoenix-like. Like Eliot, Valente shores fragments against ruin. Despite the frenetic pace of these lines, they stalwartly endure in their patience and craftsmanship; the speaker, mirroring the lines themselves, is “still waiting for the one poem / that will bring me home,” willing a potentially brighter day through an exquisite grafting of myth onto the stark, graphic canvas of a reality where “violence [is] never / far from the hands of men.” The ending of the poem is both heartbreaking and soul-affirming in the nobility of its resolve:

I used to think of all the ways to fall in front
of cars, sacrifice my body to get what I had

before. I used to pray for a new body by moon
light, a return to being human. I leave without giving
you my name. I do not believe in punishment.

The speaker’s examination of sexual violence and its aftermath is equivalent to heroic descent. With knowledge of the past, these poems return to the shore of Lethe to carve out the name of a witness on the driftwood. Through Valente’s harmony of her intuition with the discordant drone of the sea beyond, we are restored.

Paul S. Rowe is a writer from Boston, M.A. His reviews, poems, interviews, and articles appear in Literary Imagination, Berfrois, The New England Review of Books, and Moonchild Magazine. Paul is co-editor of the Charles River Journal, an imprint of Pen & Anvil Press and teaches English at Endicott College and Merrimack College.