My guest this week is Pat Valdata, author of Inherent Vice. Valdata received an MFA in writing from Goddard College. Inherent Vice (Pecan Grove Press) is her newest book, a full-length poetry collection published in March 2011. Her earlier chapbook, Looking for Bivalve (2002), was a finalist in Pecan Grove's chapbook competition. Valdata has twice received Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist grants for her poetry. She has also written two novels: Crosswind (Wind Canyon Books, 1997) and The Other Sister (Plain View Press, 2008), which won a gold medal from the Árpád Academy in 2009. She is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC).
In this post, I review Pat's Inherent Vice. In the next post, Pat writes about the importance of verisimilitude.
Pat Valdata’s debut full-length collection of poetry, Inherent Vice, is based on the eponymous concept borrowed from the art of restoration: “the quality of a material or an object to self-destruct or to be unusually difficult to maintain.” The tightly woven collection, in other words, explores the idea of the fragility of life, of how little it takes to set in motion the process of destruction. Unlike artists in the vanitas tradition (“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” Ecclesiastes 1:2), however, which focuses on the emptiness of earthly pleasures, Valdata’s poems embrace the transitory nature of her subjects and find value in experience, even when tinged with death. With empathy and humor, the collection meditates on the value of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness in light of inescapable entropy.
The opening poem, for example, is a quirky look at Dickinson’s fly: “Say the last thing that you heard was really the buzz of a fly,” the poem begins. What if this fly could speak to you? What would it say? In Dickinson’s poem, the fly is mute, a meaningless drone to end the mechanical existence of the body when “the windows failed.” In Valdata’s poem, the fly is full of life, recently enjoying “the fleeting and narrow fame of a paper printed in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine.” It tells the dying ear “its life story, the growing pains of pupation, the wet emergence into adulthood, the joy of that first takeoff, knowing you had beaten gravity’s glum illusion: you need never land.” Even this dumb fly, Valdata implies, has mastered the art of life enjoyment in its brief existence. Though limited in its ability, it is immortalized by painters and poets. Is this “secret the fly whispers” a “sleep-deprived lie,” what we tell ourselves about our own mortality in order to keep going?
There is a dark way and a light way to read Inherent Vice. A poem such as “Fear,” for example, in which the speaker “crouch[es] in the kitchen, close / to the butcher knife,” waiting for the police to arrive before a burglar makes it into the house, is easy to read as dark. It is the inevitable consequence of mortality, to live in fear. The poems that follow it, “Bomb Scare” and “As Luck Would Have it,” poeticize the blissful ignorance that led to the unforeseen horror of the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. There are poems about Katrina, about “baby soldiers” in Baghdad. In “1930 Census,” there are “nothing but names when we look back.” These are all poems from the first part of the three-part collection, however, and the section ends on a more hopeful note, with poems such as “Advice from the Beach,” in which the beach, who has been “grind[ing] rock to stone / to pebble to grain” for eons, advises: “Trust the process.”
The next section of the collection is ballsier. Adversity and death become “street characters” who endure despite defeat, like Lot’s wife, who defiantly says, “So, I looked back.” So what, she seems to say:
So. I looked back.
Saw it destroyed, that village
where my daughters were offered,
could no longer live with the lout who
would give their virgin bodies to the mob.
So I looked back.
At night, desert creatures
caress me with hot tongues.
Here is where the collection, like Lot’s wife, takes a defiant, hopeful turn. The last poem, “Frankengourd,” metaphorizes the human condition:
The only question, really, is whether the thing is beautiful.
Clawed by cats, its scars sewn with sea grass, someone clearly
Are we monstrous in our broken places? Not quite:
Like any crafted object, it is more than the sum of its parts,
not merely dry, not just a vessel, but something almost monstrous:
In the final section of the book, the poems become tender. In “Her Husband Performs Home Maintenance,” Valdata writes, “How good of him to labor through the night, / To solder on, and by his training goaded, / Protect us from disasters yet to come.” We know that there is no such thing as protection from disaster, but we can marvel at the human willingness to try, “to labor through the night,” even knowing the futility of that effort.
The end of the collection is bittersweet. In “What Life Is, Sometimes,” Valdata writes,
We are sharp as a finger snap,
Swift as a centipede,
And even if we live to be ninety:
Ephemeral as a dandelion seed.
In the last poem of the collection, “Hawk Mountain, September,” a mother watches as her young son plays precariously among rocks, “as if she can give him traction with her eyes, deny / what she already knows, that all things grow up and leave.”
It’s not poetry’s job to provide us with the answers to life’s hardest questions; its job is to help us frame those questions, and show us the materials from which to form our own partial answers. Valdata takes that task on with simple elegance in this collection, in poems that find humor in darkness and tenderness in danger. These aren’t lullabies of hope or proclamations of doom; they are still lifes, studies in color and shape that can only be momentarily captured. “Refractory,” a poem from the middle of the collection, encapsulates this theme most clearly. The speaker awakens to a morning rain so beautiful, it “polishes wet leaves bright as pumpkins.” She thinks:
today, for twenty minutes the whole forest
flames, a fraction of a rainbow, refraction’s
shortest story. You wish that you could paint
the air. No—if you had time for an easel,
brush and tube, you’d splash a garish canvas,
like lurid, late-night television seascapes.
It is a curse to be an artist at heart! Hope fades
like the light, and instead you draw the shades,
shutting out the leaves, the rain, the light. Monet.