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.

Alphabet deepens Atlas’s engagement with the role of the writer in particular, calling attention to the way language, down to its smallest parts, can create meaning and be nourishment. (Vandenberg writes, in “M,” “I think of books as milk from other animals.”) In “O, P, R, S (Eye / Mouth / Head / Tongue),” Vandenberg’s eye becomes a microscope, finding the helixes that mean “the ribbon of my life is thin.” Watching for deer on the highway becomes a meditation on the word “deer” itself, which, the poem tells us, meant “any untamed thing that breathes,” from “the Sanskrit for he perishes.” The deer walking out of the woods, the poet riding in the passenger seat are aligned in a sudden, single category by their signs: the alphabet reorganizes the world, and what is “inside” and what is “outside” are not as stable as they might seem. In “D Ghazal” (there are several poems of this form in the book), we track the object “D” from the Book of Kells to a chapter book where “children color in its middle,” and back to the Phonecian “daleth, a crude door” and Greek “delta, / the river’s maw.” But “D” is not only a public symbol (for “Deliberate, Dust, Dinosaur. […] Donkey, Doo-hickey, Don’t”). “D” is also for “Dopplegänger, shadow boy,” and for “your death I hold / against the light of November.” The poet is “pure amber that trapped / your boyhood self.” The world of pure text, where “gold-leafed D” lives in a holy manuscript is the same world where the poet holds reckoning with an interior court, giving herself “a [daleth], the door that faces backward.” The poem unites the written sign and the things the writer can do with it.

Through the alphabet’s power to gather and to name, Vandenberg senses, perceives, and interacts with the world. More than that: she contains it, while acknowledging it cannot be contained.

Through the alphabet’s power to gather and to name, Vandenberg senses, perceives, and interacts with the world. More than that: she contains it, while acknowledging it cannot be contained. In the book’s first poem, she writes that in “one Nordbrandt poem I like, ‘A,’ // ‘Already in the word’s first letter / the word is already there / and in the word already, the whole sentence. /… / as the a- // lmond tree is in each almond” (“Prologue: A Ghazal”). In A there are apples, almonds, oxen and poets, alienation. There are assholes in A; it is a world limited in scale but not in scope. Lots fits in: both “the Lord” and “Katrina” have the power to say in it. Vandenberg claims the power of speech and writing at once, naming herself as is customary at the end of the ghazal, and putting her own name — the name of a woman, name of a poet — in the same grammatical location as “Lord” one line previous. “Saith the Lord, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ // Saith Katrina, ‘Already the pure child and all the unborn inside it / have been forgotten with the path the ox broke through the snow.” The alphabet is a sign of the ability to make sense out of immeasurable and senseless loss, a way of seeing patterns, which in itself can be comfort when there is little. The spontaneous abortion referred to in “Prologue,” the questions surrounding the death of a young family member, the assaults and rapes of people known and unknown to the poet make holes in the fabric of representation and of meaning. While these tears are not patched by Vandenberg’s ordering of the world, we find that her ordering provides us with the fact of beauty (fuchsias, “a house / made of trees sagging with dates and mercy,” Saint Kevin with a bird’s egg and the bird in his palm). In these poems, the fact that “your father hit / your four-year-old stepbrother / until / he was dead” is inseparable from the saint holding the nest in his palm. No matter how they are ordered, they cannot make the book’s complete sense without one another.

In the last poem of the collection — another ghazal, “Z,” this time — Vandenberg writes “The author should say something has changed by the end. / What if Z hasn’t always been the alphabet’s end? […] In the end // we forge pure silver spears, and Katrina makes peace with nothing.” The presence of the past and of the effects of the past on the present run through most of the book (in particular in poems like “The Autumn Our Babysitter Was Murdered by Her Boyfriend,” “Live Through This,” “My Sister Visits Her Ex in Prison Once A Year to Ask Him Whether He Did It,” and “Making Her Black Bean Chili Again”). There is no “end” to be arrived at, no place where the past stops living with the present. Every marriage, even the ones between this time and that, this language and that, this system of signs and that, must “feed its ghosts, or they’ll never let you be” (“Making Her Black Bean Chili Again”). Vandenberg’s “Katrina” makes peace with nothing, and from her restlessness we have this book, a search after meaning which assures us finally that “naming is nothing like being or knowing” (“K”). In the end, the set of things which are — “gardens and florists, also French / taxicab drivers and STDs” — are “with only a poor handful / of letters, hard to explain” (“E”).

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