Back in August I got a comment from the Val Jupe, under Let Poetry Die. She wrote:
“I also just published my first (short) book of poetry… And while I’m glad I did, it feels strange to do so in a climate where no one cares for poetry (aside for ‘slam poetry’) and where no one reads it.”
That reminded me of the cold silence my first and only book of poetry received. In retrospect I probably should have sent out the first 200 books, like EA Robinson, to 200 reviewers. I did send out my books to a number of poets whom I admired and was, to a poet, met with the response that they were just too busy and ‘Good luck’.
So, setting the example they should have set, my review.
Val Jupe’s first book is modest in every sense. I like that. It’s 29 pages long, slim and unpretentious. The poetry is printed with a sans serif font. It’s know it’s subjective but I’ve never liked sans serif mixed with literature—makes a book look as if it were printed on a budget. Why be obvious? In the bio she tells us she’s worked as a video editor for over 12 years, is fond of Paris and Prague (me too by the way—especially Prague), loves food and wine and “considers herself something of a poet”. And as any poet will tell you, a high opinion of oneself is essential to survival. (It’s the stragglers who are picked off first.)
What are Jupe’s poems like?
She has a good sense of rhythm and rhyme, bringing a modern sensibility to traditional poetry. Though there’s some meter the poems are more often syllabic. It’s the rhyming where Jupe’s playfulness stands out, and it’s playfulness that characterizes Jupe’s best poems. That, and perhaps, a bit of sentimentality and mawkishness. But first to the poetry.
What you won’t find in Jupe’s poetry is much in the way of imagery or metaphor. Her poems are largely declarative. She begins the poem Kelly, simply and declaratively:
Its’ winter now
And you should be here.
We should be bundled up
Walking ridiculous lengths to free events
Or in search of the perfecd bagel.
Much like something we would expect on the back of a postcard. It ends: “And I miss you”. Just another way of saying: ‘Wish you were here’. Not one of Jupe’s more successful poems. We’ve all wished a friend of ours were close by, but that sort of precious sentimentality is best left to the mailbox. But then in the very next poem she seems to find her footing:
Some Mother-in-Law’s Sentiment
Ever since you’ve taken my only
daughter’s hand in marriage
I have found that “wedded bliss” is one
thing to disparage
Oh – some things you cannot change
and oh – some things you can
and oh how I wish my daughter had
better taste in men.
In my opinion, and if Jupe is to have a future in poetry, that’s where she will find it. Notice the sly rhyming of marriage and disparage. Reminds me of Dorothy Parker:
Lady, lady, should you meet
One whose ways are all discreet,
One who murmurs that his wife
Is the lodestar of his life,
One who keeps assuring you
That he never was untrue,
Never loved another one…
Lady, lady, better run!
~ Dorothy Parker
If you like or are familiar with Dorothy Parker, then you’ll like Jupe. Wikipedia writes of Parker: “an American poet, short story writer, critic and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th-century urban foibles.” And that could just as aptly describe Jupe at her best (remember this is her first book of poems so let’s go easy). Consider this little gem from On Wildness:
Its not so much “I left them all”
– more, it’s like they let me go
– well, less like let and… more like told
(or pushed and kicked) but even so
That’s beautiful. That’s iambic tetrameter and some playful rhyming to boot. The tug and pull of the speaker’s self-qualifying corrections run cross-currents to the meter with a tour-de-force of playfulness. I’m guessing Jupe’s a natural at this sort of thing. The whole poem is like this: witty, self-deprecating, the kind that makes you laugh with her and not at her. Yes, the poem goes a bit over the top toward the end, might overplay its hand, but the exuberance of the beginner can be forgiven. She’s at her best when she slyly examines the roles and expectations of a daughter, friend, woman and lover.
The title of the book suggests the flip-side of Jupe’s more humorous poetry—a somewhat maudlin sentimentality. Expressing and evoking sorrow in poetry, let alone literature in general, isn’t easy. The inexperienced poet often descends into cliché and mawkishness. Words Hurt, for example, might be beautifully illustrated by a pity puppy or pity kitty. The trick to evoking sorrow is to be indirect. Declarative poems—simply stating that one is sad or has been hurt—rarely come off as anything other than cloying and self-pitying. The quicker Jupe can put a poem like Words Hurt behind her, the better.
The memorial poem 9/11 poem 1, is also one of the less successful poems. The sentiments are sincere but somewhat mawkish, ending with: “(we are a nation mourning safety, now,/shaking weary fists toward the sky.)”. I don’t recall seeing anyone shake their fists “toward the sky”, but it is a somewhat clichéd and conventional image. Again, there’s always that danger in trying to provoke (rather than evoke) an emotional response from the reader.
So, as one might expect, Val Jupe’s first book of poetry is a mix of error and success. She should be pleased though. There have certainly been many first books without a shred of promise. Hopefully she’ll learn how to avoid the trap of excess and hone her wonderfully sardonic wit. She possesses the technical skills, only lacking the maturity that teaches us to trim. She writes that she fancies herself “a restaurant critic to be reckoned with”. My advice would be: Think of your poems as entrées. Too much of any one ingredient cloys. Sentimentality is as deadly to a poem as sugar to the main course. Just a little butter, garlic, and a touch of the caramelized leaf is all the Brussels sprouts need.
And lastly, knowing she’s someone who enjoys good food and wine, let her share with the reader her sensual experience of the world. A good poem appeals to all our senses: sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste. In short, I hope some of her poetry becomes a little less declarative and little more sensual and suggestive.
If you’re interested in reading the book, click on the image above.
The kindle edition is available for free; and you can also visit her blog, and watch her make grilled cheese sandwiches, at KumoCafe.