The Restlessness of an Order: The Alphabet Not Unlike the World by Katrina Vandenberg

The Alphabet Not Unlike the World

The Alphabet Not Unlike the World
BY Katrina Vandenberg
(Milkweed Editions, 2012)

An alphabet is a way of ordering the world, one of those structures without which it can seem unbearably large — endless, innumerable. In fact, the world is endless and innumerable, at least from the vantage point of the human-sized being, and so we continually find ways of rearranging its information. We build categories and number hierarchies and decide arbitrary or meaningful orders of things. We find relations between quantities sometimes only because they stand next to one another. The known, despite its hugeness, becomes bearable by our interfering with it, which is also to say by our interrogating it, our reading it, our living in it, and our play with it.

These (re)organizations of information and of the world itself, however, are not immutable. Our many kinds of alphabets are perishable; they are only culturally intelligible. Thousands of years after they die out, they may never again be deciphered. The alphabet, therefore, is both general and specific, the narrow point in a figure-eight, joining two immense experiences. On the one hand, each person’s lived experience, requiring some mode of expression; on the other, the future, with its decoder rings, Rosetta stones, and cassette players set to make sense of what is no longer. Alphabet as time capsule; alphabet with a use-by date.

The alphabet is also, of course, a primarily written form. No alphabet need exist for speech; that occurs without the written sign, and leaves no mark itself (apart from on a magnetic tape or a digital recorder). Alphabet, object without which written systems of words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, poems, stories, and books could not exist. The alphabet bridges the world of the oral, where texts are passed from one mouth to another, to that of the visual, where information passes through the eye. Alphabet: the very sign of writing. An alphabet also, then, an appropriate attribute for a writer to take.

The known, despite its hugeness, becomes bearable by our interfering with it, which is also to say by our interrogating it, our reading it, our living in it, and our play with it.

Katrina Vandenberg, in her collection The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, does just that, taking the alphabets she makes and finds as signs for writing, for the world, and for herself. The poet becomes “a green Dodge van,” an “old borrowed bicycle,” a girl again (many times), a prophet, a mathematician. Vandenberg finds ways of representing — making signs for — the things she has lived through; she makes intensely private experiences into doorways through which the reader enters. We pass through and find ourselves not in a tiny cell, but in the open air of a cloister. Contained but spacious. The gateway to a single place becomes an entry to several places, times, or meanings in one space. A saint’s cell in Ireland becomes a sign for the incarceration of a brother-in-law; two men raising their arms to the sky — one an ancient sign for the sound /e/, one the prisoner surrendering — have the same form but different implications. The space a sign takes up is so much smaller than the sum of its possible configurations and connotations. The visible body the poet inhabits is so much smaller than the histories she contains.

The Alphabet Not Unlike the World follows Vandenberg’s first book, Atlas, in its concern for lived, daily experience, and for the role of the writer as its witness. In “Palinode for Adolescence,” Vandenberg narrates her witnessing in the negative — saying, “Let me take it all back: last summer / I did not crouch with a group of college students / on a pilgrimage, under a tomb / in Saint Brigid’s cathedral in Kildare.” Many of the beautiful poems in Atlas deal with the AIDS-related deaths of young men with hemophilia, including the one who is again referred to in this poem: “At their age I did not make love with a boy // with HIV for the first time, not / believing that if a condom broke, I could die.” But where in Atlas we are often in the past, here we have a poet-speaker reflecting on the way the past remains a part of the present, so daily as to be impossible to predict when it will arise. The past is rubbed deeply into the now, as in the poem’s pair of stunning last lines — “I did not remember what it was like to be / their age while under a tomb, on my knees.” The tomb, the beloved boy of the poet’s past: the two are inseparable in the poem’s lexicon of signs. The speaker — in some poems “Katrina” — looking back, finds a vocabulary to speak of loss.

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