Concerned as it is with family, it’s not surprising that reading Rex Valentine’s Poetry To Ponder is a bit like catching up with an uncle of a branch of the family you haven’t heard from in years. Mining veins of sentiment and humor, Valentine draws from his memories, using mostly traditional meter and rhyme worked into respectable if not particularly flashy stanzas detailing births and deaths, weddings and reunions, childhood triumphs and crises, moments of faith and doubt, growing up and growing old.
Valentine, who has been involved in ranching all his life, is skillful at bringing readers into a life he knows well. In ”Fried Chicken Joy,” he writes, “I remember Sunday dinners / growing up out on the farm. / Dad would kill a fat red hen / that had lost her laying charm.” The head was dispatched with a “special axe” and “Then Dad would scald her, pick her feathers.” Knowing how the meal gets to the table seems, for Valentine, an important part of knowing that good things in life come with a cost.
A similar feeling comes in reading “Learning To Milk Evangeline,” where Valentine writes about mastering the chore of milking one of the family cows.
Unfortunately, too often this grit and grain of life falls out of Valentine’s writing. Sometimes, Valentine is simply trying too hard to sound poetic (“That I may living waters give when e’er my brothers thirst’); or he sounds preachy rather than folksy (“The tainted / curtain rises as we conjure up the / power of deceitful thoughts…”); or he delivers a line that fails to conjure a concrete image (“He opens / his big expressive, beautiful eyes.”).
One hopes that Valentine continues to delve into his memories, focusing on balancing his sincerity and homespun wisdom with the telling details that will make his experiences real and present to the reader.