Jeffrey Valencia’s debut poetry chapbook, Poems from 19, takes readers into the psyche of a speaker who is in the process of navigating the terrain of early adulthood, and what it means to cope with isolation and identity within an environment that can feel suffocating and stagnant. The speaker of these poems exhibits a good amount of self-awareness and honesty about being young and taking on the challenges related to growing up. These poems are important because they represent a crucial moment in a young poet’s life, asking the important question: Where do I go from here? The poems in this chapbook are well-written, precise, honest, and show the beginnings of Valencia’s strong poetic voice.
In the first poem of the collection, “Poems from three or four,” the speaker sets the stage for the tone of the work, a nice blend of self-reflection and deep honesty. The third stanza of the poem is especially gripping:
The haze worsened and left me a dull
Individual who couldn’t comprehend the
things my 15 year old self knew too well.
In the end, it’s leading to the same
simply at a slower pace, one
which has been designed by my own
lies and convictions.
This stanza works well with its attention to language and its use of tension. “Haze” and “dull” are sensory words that successfully capture the vibe of the speaker’s mindset. Wonderful tension is produced by giving “outcome” its own line: “In the end, it’s leading to the same / outcome, / simply at a slower pace…” This line does an excellent job of enacting the slowness it describes. The poem lands well on the final stanza:
So I cannot complain but simply
admire the person I was and then
became, and the person
I now am, who is shaping into
who I could be.
The tone shifts to humility and acceptance, and a sense of hopefulness as the speaker looks forward to the future: “…the person / I now am, who is shaping into / who I could be.”
In this chapbook, there is an on-going struggle between high and low emotions, and how the speaker seeks to manage these feelings. In the poem “Feeling full,” the speaker says, “I would sit and stare / at the burgundy carpet…,” and admits that “It felt nice to feel / like shit.” Here, the speaker confronts the complex moment of what it means to dwell in low feelings. However, the poem, “For trying,” serves as a wonderful counterpoint. It contains repetition and rhythmic energy as the speaker articulates his ultimate desire for transcendence through creative means:
For trying to feel productive at the end of the day
For drinking hot tea that has been sitting for half an hour
For packing the bowl over and over, whilst nothing happens
For being foolish enough to try to write something I don’t know well
For reading Whitman and William Carlos Williams this late
For drowning in my own house, in my own room with no space
For creating a new boundary and setting the old one on fire
This first half of the poem is a good example of how the speaker attempts to navigate these contrasting emotions: “For packing the bowl over and over, whilst nothing happens / For being foolish enough to try to write something I don’t know well.” These two lines convey helplessness and inexperience; however, the line: “For creating a new boundary and setting the old one on fire” works as a skillful turn that enacts the speaker’s will to evolve on his own terms, through his own actions.
“nervous,” is a short lyrical poem that makes wonderful use of language and form, and hints at an affectionate relationship with another person. Here it is in its entirety:
Even on my bad days,
in my worst shoes,
With my worst head,
You smile and rub my head
This is one of the strongest poems in the collection because of its openness and the exchange that occurs between the speaker and the person being addressed. Images like “worst shoes” and “worst head” are poignant and metaphorical; the poet’s choice to isolate “gleaming” gives the word space to hold immense depth. The final line, “You smile and rub my head,” is both soothing and emotionally affirming, and relaxes the tension that emanates from the title, so that being “nervous” becomes a manageable emotion. Here, the speaker is transcended through physical affection.
Poems from 19 is a great first step for Valencia, who is just beginning his poetry career. The work in this chapbook shows a lot of potential for creative growth. Valencia writes with a cultivated voice and a good knowledge of how poems work structurally. Poems from 19 is strong because Valencia, as a poet, trusts his instincts, and already has a good sense of who he is as a poet. His natural voice and his natural use of language and form do the work it’s meant to do in order to create compelling poems. Poems from 19 is notable for the way the magic of the poems shine through, for the way the speaker, although young, makes the most of his current situation, and for his willingness to explore the full spectrum of his emotions.
September 9, 2019