Alice Jones

Winner of the Lyric Poetry Award in 2006

Valle d'Aosta


Angelic cow bells rise up from the valleys
long before the cows appear in the mountains,
a random music, like unstill water,
coming up from the cold trenches to islands
of warmth on the high slopes beyond cities'
sound, the low brass notes speak an animal sorrow

and when we're descending we feel the sorrow
as our own. After a day of altitude, the valley's
pulling us homeward toward the trek's end, a city's
black and gold spangled night, but in the mountains
we are still just bodies walking through islands
of time. Lunch: bread and salmon, plums and water,

restored for the afternoon, low on precious water
we remember the day we hadn't filled up, our sorrow
about how many euros per bottle at one of those islands
of civilization, a lift station, liftless. The valley's
reachable by foot, no rides in September's mountains,
the funivia is closed for repairs and tomorrow the city's

lights won't disappear as we leave the five little cities
and ascend, carried up over ridges and ibex, water—
heavy fog surrounds us, we're lost in the mountains,
cloud-bound. A stone marker, some climber's sorrow,
there must be a trail here somewhere to the valley's
moss, we examine rocks for the red/white marks, islands

of logic, a map in the sea of granite islands
above the fog-floor, chirring marmots inhabit cities
of boulders. We've been absorbed into time's valleys,
it wears a different form up here, like water
it pools and sluices over, spills into sleep, old sorrows,
into crevices between memory and the absent mountains

of a flatland childhood. Before we ever saw mountains
we imagined them, heaps of gravel and snow, islands
floating above all we knew, the everyday pains, sorrows
of what people unknowingly do to each other, cities
of starvation, neglect, battles, bacteria in black water,
battered shells of children looking for some warm valley,
a home from which to wander into valleys, mountains
and glaciers, melted turquoise water, muddy islands
of human cities, moving out of and into blunt sorrow.


 (The end-words are taken from W.H. Auden's "Paysage Moralisé")
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Toi Derricotte on Alice Jones

I love this beautiful sestina for so many reasons but, most of all, for its perfect balance of form and content.

The story meanders almost leisurely through a passing day between friends hiking the Valle d'Aosta as they find their way down. The poet says, "in the mountains/ we are still just bodies walking through islands/ of time." Each stanza is an island of time in the descent, and the repeated words connect and anchor them. The form is never forced; rather, it creates a cycle of understanding, the words gathering other meanings, so that, as the couple descends, the poet's vision becomes broader and takes more in, "crevices between memory and the absent mountains/ of a flatland childhood." This contrasting movement creates a lovely tension. By the end, the poet makes connections to our vaster sorrows.

There is a gentle wisdom and maturity in the voice. In the penultimate stanza, when the poet comes to "the everyday pains, sorrows/ of what people unknowingly do to each other," there is forgiveness and compassion for the past, and an acceptance of our part in the most terrible events. At the same time, the poem is a validation of our desire and ability to possess beauty.

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