James Valvis Book Review
by Steve Henn
James Valvis. How to Say Goodbye. Aortic Books, 2011. http://www.aorticbooks.com, $12.99
There’s quite a lot to like in James Valvis’s How to Say Goodbye. The poems frequently contrast the poet’s hard-luck, abusive upbringing with the gratitude he feels for the life he’s been able to make with his daughter and wife. I’ll run through a series of strengths I found in the poems, and follow with the only critical note I want to sound, which could’ve elevated this good first collection of poems into a great one.
Don Winter, who self-identifies as a working class poet, has written of the importance of sharing real, lived, blue collar experience in poems, and of avoiding what I’ve heard him call “academically vetted” language. Valvis’s book is full of lived experience, and he has a real gift with words. He avoids the pitfalls critics like Winter see often in the poems of the Academy – unnecessarily complicated vocabulary, intentional obfuscation, difficulty for the sake of difficulty. Rather, Valvis has a sharp ear for the narrative poem. His best poems are small pictures of experience framed perfectly, with endings that sometimes appeal to our sense of comedy, sometimes to our sense of tragedy, and sometimes, a little of both.
In “Waiting,” the poet details a losing night of his mother’s obsessive bingo-playing, a crutch she wishes could cure her family’s problems. In “Lifting,” which follows, the poet, a newbie in the weight room, earns the respect of a veteran lifter, who says “Just walking in, you’re more man than most.” In “The Privileged Generation,” the poet tells his daughter of the poverty and heartache of his childhood, and surprisingly and beautifully graces the poem with levity when they’re looking through a telescope at a full moon they’ve driven 70 miles to see, and he says, “when I was a boy we didn’t have full moons, only half moons.” Just as frequent as these moments of observation of and communion with others are examinations of the self, moments when the poet looks inward, when he can only be helped to make sense of things by himself. In his best poems, Valvis knows what the heart of the story is, and he has a poet’s ear for the concision and detail required to tell the story, well, poetically.
Valvis’s tonal range is impressive. This isn’t only a funny book, or only poignant, only terrifying, only bittersweet – it’s all of those. My only significant critique is that the book is all those good things and a little more, and the book would be better for it if that little more were left out. There are a ton of poems in this collection – 190 pages worth – and the weaker ones drag it down a bit. If Valvis were to cut out about 50 or so poems that are more likely to make you go “meh,” the quality of the work as a whole would be magnified. It’s his first book; he can hold poems back. If he hits the big time he can always release the so-so stuff posthumously, like the never ending stream of Bukowski Schlock that just won’t quit. It’s a solid 2 to 1, maybe 5 to 2 good ones to so-so ones, I’d bet, and well worth the time to read. Valvis has vision and achieves clarity, something we don’t see done well often enough. He gives voice to experiences that are woefully underrepresented in contemporary poetry, and does so with insight and poems that demonstrate heart.