Thursday, July 05, 2007


I get, as you might imagine, some unusual mail, some of it virtual, some not. Right now I’m receiving maybe ten poems every day from different people, including one person in New Orleans who never signs his or her texts, but merely types them (sometimes directly, sometimes on white paper which is then glued or taped) onto various pieces of commercial cardboard (off-brand soft drink boxes, packaging for facial tissues), slaps a stamp on it & sends it along. But I’ve long been a recipient of such curiosities. Because I’ve been writing a poem entitled The Alphabet since 1979, I’ve received a few items that appear related, starting with a 1983 publication from Romania entitled ABC, with a subtitle that reads 1933:Eriocele Lupte Ale Clasei Muncitoare, which I take to be some kind of Communist Party tract (Romanian being one of hundreds, indeed thousands, of languages I do not read). That social realist front cover more than makes up for the fact that I can’t discern a word of Dumitru Almaş’ text.

Given that The Alphabet, my Alphabet, is scheduled for publication next year with the University of Alabama Press, I’ve paid more attention in recent years to the occasional poem that uses some form of this as (or in) its title. Perhaps the most amazing, given that it was written during roughly the same years I first started my project – and that it actually uses Fibonacci sequence I employed in Tjanting (and which does appear in a couple of minor guises throughout The Alphabet) – is Inger Christensen’s 1981 Alphabet. Chronologically, Christensen, one of Denmark’s major authors, is closer to the New American poetry of the 1950s than she is to more recent post-avant poetics, and to some degree it shows. Christensen’s Alphabet, more than anything else, is a prayer against nuclear annihilation, a position with which I’m sympathetic, if not a genre I would think to use. It’s hard to imagine that two poets who both employ Fibonacci at points during their careers could write poems with virtually the same title that are less similar in their aesthetic sensibilities. I didn’t learn of Christensen’s work until I came across Susanna Nied’s translation a couple of years ago.

A more recent doppelganger is Ellen Baxt’s Analfabeto / An Alphabet, published earlier this year by Shearsman, one of Britain’s best presses. Analfabeto is, more than anything else, a poetic memoir of a self-identified Brooklyn Jewish lesbian’s trip to Recife, Brazil, where she works as an English language instructor. Issues of gender, orientation, religion, language, positionality within the fragile politics of globalization all make an appearance, indeed are pretty much omnipresent throughout, since Baxt is nothing if not a conscientious reporter of her own circumstances.

To my eye, this is the book’s strength, but I feel fairly sure that some readers may experience it as the volume’s weakness as well. For a book that is, by definition, intensely personal, Analfabeto often has the feel, above all else, of reportage:

Rua dos Judeus became Rum Bom Jesus. Blue script on white tile.


In 1634, a band of twenty-three Jews expelled by the Portuguese from Recife, Brazil, landed in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. From that day to the present, there has been a permanent Jewish population in what is now the United States.


In the vegetarian restaurant, paintings of cashew fruit with Hebrew signs. It smells like a Hari Krishna cafeteria, vinegar and shredded beets. Rua Bom Jesus is expensive. The synagogue is a museum. The sanctuary is closed except for special occasions. A stone well was found underground, mikva. You can read the list of names.

Some portions of the text – especially around issues of romance &/or translation – are much more intimate:

Thank you for your wildcat dare. Yes, I have sheep, an ounce of wave, a flap of a book. I have an oyster. Yesterday you were shoulder, attention, declining sun. Thank you for your kindness.


I smell feminine glimpse, a milky egg. Show me to bone eight. It is difficult to fall or Autumn, offering gold. Yesterday bore dew. É dificil orientar-se nesta cidade.

The text has something of a notebook feel to it, alternating prose paragraphs, verse & the sort of on-the-fly notations of daily experience that recall the very latest portions of Charles Olson’s Maximus. Baxt does all of these well & makes considerable use of the page as space to keep things in balance while steadily moving forward. One consequence of this approach, tho, is a 75-page text with no more words to it than another poet might have used for 35 pages, or for 40. For this much experience, it’s a surprisingly quick read. I was amazed to find myself at the end so quickly, wanting, in fact, to read a lot more.

The overall result is that much of the reader’s experience of this book is going to depend on just how much you like Baxt. The craft is always exacting, if not ground-breaking, and the intelligence, good will & earnestness evident throughout, so I come away with a sense that, tho I’ve never met her directly, Ellen Baxt would be a terrific person with whom to share a panel or a meal.


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