David Troupes: On Jean Valentine’s ‘Annunciation’

I want to leave the metaphysical or spiritual ideas of this poem – fascinating as they are – to one side, and just dwell a moment on the way the form of the poem, its use of mid-line caesura and a final enjambment, balances thought and experience as two aspects of a unifying, religious (in the sense of re-ligaturing or reconnecting) drama.

The first line divides between these two categories, thought and experience. The first half sounds formal, abstract, as if sparked by a discussion. Then comes the caesura, which is like the quiet of a gathering current. And then the second half, ‘breaking open’: this is, by contrast, experiential language. While the first half of the line is controlled by the nouns ‘soul’ and ‘flesh’, the second half is verb. It is pure event, like a sudden reality taking the place of what had only been an idea. The six words and seven syllables of the first half quicken into the two words and four syllables of the second half.

The second line, without caesura, introduces the central conceit of the poem while steadying its momentum. Like the opening half of the first line, the second line is more thought than experience, more object than verb. But the third line resumes the increasing momentum, with two worlds and three syllables hastening their energy into the yet smaller line-portion of ‘pouring’, a single word of two syllables.

At this point, the ‘Annunciation’ has already set up a convention of thought rushing, foreshortened, into experience across a line’s caesura. The poem then plays against this expectation with a somewhat overburdened line in which the speaker’s alarm takes on the qualities of a verb: already our mind is trying to stuff ‘my life breaking open’ into the cramped, urgent space occupied previously by ‘pouring’. ‘No one to catch it’ is the record of an idea, but ‘my life breaking open’ is the record of an experience overwhelming the speaker’s expectations.

These expectations are again overwhelmed, even more startlingly, with the final enjambment of ‘my/pelvis’. Nothing in this brief poem has prepared us for this lineation. We could say that ‘my’ takes its place as functional verb, in series with the other post-caesura experiential phrases. The final effect of Valentine’s decision here, however, is to shock us out of the more or less painless rhythm of the poem up to that point. The small variations in form from line to line have been easy enough to accommodate up to this point, but the enjambment is too much, and we are left blinking at the closing image with the sense of being woken from a dream only to find ourselves in a dream yet stranger.

Poem quoted from ‘Door in the Mountain: New and Selected Poems’, Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

David Troupes is currently completing a WRoCAH-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield on Ted Hughes and Christianity. Alongside chapters and articles on Hughes, he has published two collections of poetry, and a selection of his recent work was included in Carcanet’s ‘New Poetries VI’. See www.buttercupfestival.com for more information.

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