Reviewed by Elvis Alves
Sirs & Madams
by Joanna C. Valente
Sept 2014, Paperback: 78 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0692278338
Joanna C. Valente speaks of death in her collection of poems, Sirs and Madams. The poems remind us that we are wrong—dead wrong—if we think of death only as something that happens when life ends. This reminder weaves its way throughout the book and is most poignant when Valente writes about relationships. The stories within the poems are told by “three sisters dangerous as swans, broken into a hundred versions of themselves depending on which day of the week” (Tell Them They’re Dead, 75). The sisters are Tessa, Marianne and Maggie.
Using the sisters as different personalities, Valente navigates the intricacies of relationships. She writes, “I imagine him as you in this bed claiming your territory, naming yourself” (Your Guts are Like Mine, 31). Here we see the body as analogous to a conquered land that is pillaged and its parts named by the lover who is the colonizer. In the same poem, the narrator (Tessa) writes, “Next morning you drew a map for me to get back to my part of Brooklyn—told me to get home safe—code for something else” (31). Valente recalls this illusion of safety in The Boys Who Died, “They were saving up money like all good boys do, to marry women like them, a safe brutality” (21). The poem equates death with a union that is not working.
Valente attempts to make sense of the mess of life. She appears acutely aware of the futility of this goal, knowing that life does not always make sense. Thus she pushes on, writes through the mess. Some of the poems touch on the life of a favorite uncle, who the narrator calls “my other father,” and who dies of cancer. The death inspires the verse “Somebody’s rib cage opened/ inside mine/ while I lit a candle” (Tessa Remembers His Funeral, 27). The light here illumines the soul of the sufferer, encumbered by pain.
Similar to the story of the favorite uncle, Sirs and Madams relates tales of characters and community familiar to the writer but that were not ideal. Valente writes, “Mama told us the neighbors hadn’t woken up in nearly a hundred years” (Maggie Recall the Birds, Part 1, 24). Touching on the issue of sexual identity, Valente writes, “Paul told her he wanted to a be a dancer, rent an apartment in the city with a dog & a man” (Paul & Marianne, 58). Many of the poems capture the desire to move to a place where one can fully be who one is. “In night’s dark, you drive to the diner; you aren’t even hungry, it’s just the only place to go besides an empty parking lot” (Road Trip, Or, How Maggie Learned to Love Her Feet, 35).
Other than seeing the sisters as sisters, I think it works best to see them as parts of the author’s personality. Isn’t all literature autobiographical? Thus, a close reading of Sirs & Madams gives a fuller understanding and appreciation of the magnitude of the task Valente took upon herself, in writing the book. She begs us look into her life and mind and see the complexes therein. She succeeds in drawing us in. Can we ever get out? Maybe Valente will tell us in her next book. In the meanwhile, do yourself a favor and read Sirs & Madams.
About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com