Poetry Review: “Aquamarine” — Stonecutter’s Craft

By Michael Londra

Valerie Duff’s polished style is thoughtful and observant, her fluent voice compressed and controlled. She constructs meticulous lines with (to borrow one of her phrases from these pages) a “stonecutter’s precision.”

Aquamarine by Valerie Duff. Lily Poetry Review, 70 pages $18.

Aquamarine is Valerie Duff’s new book of poems, her first in thirteen years. Taking her title from the blue-green gemstone believed to possess the ability to heal and protect, Duff equates verse with a sacred object that is capable of warding off trouble or restoring peace of mind. Whether confronting cancer, or following the hearse of a dead parent, her best work explores the various ways we cope with death, imbuing the intimate with intimations of the infinite.

The traumatic revelation in “Biome” is triggered by mortality. Shocked at the confirmation of a malignancy, Duff reflects on its silent gestation: “I never felt the thing, / the jelly luminescent in my breast.” Her terror is mixed with defiance: “googling survive, googling fear, / never death…This is how we live, adjusting odds, / percentages in our favor.” Confronting her cancer scan sparks a mysterious image: “Its Medusa stalks / a wave of supplication, umbrella pulse of dreams.” That word “supplication” invites ambiguity. Is the tumor petitioning her to acknowledge its “dreams?” Or is she the supplicant, begging fate for a chance at survival? Duff leaves open both possibilities —  the inner conflict is unresolved.

“Folk Magic,” on the other hand, is a successful plea that a dead parent refuse burial: “We are following the hearse…winter face, eyes tight, reject / the earth.” Duff believes that her incantation, powered by language’s magic worked. The body in the casket is now just a husk — “not my father / any longer” — but his spirit remains active. She refuses to doubt that mystical reality: “Put your faith in / blue hydrangea ground to powder.”

A Boston poet, Duff embrace the local, the specific. “Expedition” encapsulates her aesthetic: “A seedling of topography can tie us tight, comfort us with contour.” Thus Aquamarine presents a variegated tour of Massachusetts. “Wild Nights” puts us in the company of Amherst’s Emily Dickinson. The drowned innocents in Salem speak again in “Witch Hunt”: “weight, split the day, coax me back… To test my luck and face the water down.” “Up Vinegar Hill” spotlights an enigmatic natural landscape: “Like shafts of hair, moss vines whip across the eye…Small nesters bark into oblivion. Birdsong: / a million doors squeak on.”

Regional specificity is admirable, even invigorating, but Duff can go overboard. “Guide,” one example, begins: “In the Wellesley / Botanic Gardens.” Name-dropping Wellesley doesn’t add resonance  to the poem — it only confuses the reader. What’s so special about Wellesley in this context? Overlook this needless reference, and a poignant drama about a tiny daughter and her pregnant mother emerges: “your brother / within me then, green- / housed…I stooped, / a loaded bullwhip set / to fling, Vetruvian, / my arms, yours, and his / ghostly ones imposed, / a spinning pinwheel.”

Contemporary American poetry rarely ventures beyond conversational free verse. Aquamarine boasts slant rhyme, verse-in-prose, experimental caesuras, ekphrasis, internal rhyme, and unusual enjambments. From “Wanderlust:”


The cup was small,

The coffee harsh. I had

to catch a train from Marble Arch.


The lively internal rhyme of “harsh” and “Marble Arch” delights, but is topped by the complexity of “Arrowhead,” where Duff introduces interpenetrating linguistic layers, deploying internal rhyme and slant rhyme simultaneously


Melville’s monsters of the sea arrive

on balsam tides. Unanchored shale

becomes white whales that clink like shells


Pinging off each other, “arrive” and “tides” are slant and internal; “shale” and “whales” are internal too, but those “-le” and “-el” endings also make them slant, a superb rhyming effect, enhanced and extended even further by finishing with “shells.”

Duff’s polished style is thoughtful and observant, her fluent voice compressed and controlled, constructing meticulous lines with (to borrow one of her phrases from these pages) a “stonecutter’s precision.” In “Reflection,” each syllable is etched with great care: “You and I are / Spruce…Powerhouse of fern…And in the pond, the sky.”

Duff is determined to avoid sentimentality, so her verse can be excessively spare, emotions dry cleaned out. And that can sometimes be withering to a fault. “Calling,” an elegy for Seamus Heaney, underlines this issue. Many lovely touches here evoke his presence: “When we first met, you were an elegant /windmill, tufts of white hair a thistle’s / wispy seeds” and “On my bus route down the Navan Road…We were crossing fields of history…you quarried something out, / something marble.” But Duff doesn’t make the intent of her memorial clear. Is she writing out of bittersweet sorrow? Celebrating his genius?  Or all  of the above? Passion is generally kept under wraps as the poem insists on prosaic flatness: “I thought of you at Harvard / all my turbulent Dublin year…when I’d buy a cappuccino, sit the café’s posh seat by the glass, / wonder if I’d see you on a corner…You were no doubt, by then, dreaming / Kerry coastlines.” Aside from setting the geographic scene, what is the emotional significance that Heaney is at Harvard and Duff in Dublin?

In contrast, “Music of the Spheres,” set in Italy, displays the punch-drunk, passionate intensity that many readers, tired of the lean, may yearn for: “On my birthday, I attended / a performance of Bach…I staggered out, an accordion, wondering / how to make a compound sentence.” Duff admits here that great art should leave us delirious. Next, heading into the Uffizi, she is “face to face with The Annunciation.” Simone Martini’s masterpiece provides, for her, a form of earthly salvation: “Then I wept, hardly knowing I was standing / with anyone but the saints, in their exclusive panels, / their stares the still twin eyes of storms.” Aquamarine showcases the compelling arc — from the bare-bones to the blissful — of a maturing poetic vision.

Michael Londra writes poetry, fiction, and criticism. His work has been published in The Fortnightly Review, The Blue Mountain Review, spoKe, Boog City, and will be included in New Studies in Delmore Schwartz, edited by Ben Mazer, forthcoming from MadHat Press. He lives in Manhattan.

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