A chapbook that sings a hymn to every letter in the alphabet is no surprise coming from Barbra Nightingale. Her clever and charming Alphalexia is merely the culmination (so far) of a longstanding interest in the most elemental building blocks of language: letters. Not just in combination but standing alone and having meaning in the way they sound, the way they look, the way they make us imagine. Nightingale’s particular synesthesia was evident early on, most clearly in her Singing in the Key of L,a more traditional production full of her characteristic mixture of playfulness, acute observation, and passion, but also scattered with notions about language, syntax, and the way we frame words — in the poem “Interdental Processes,” the author actually sits us in the dentist’s chair and gets in our mouth:
“The drill whines on and on,
its high-pitched screaming
raising shivers and tooth dust,”
How we suffer in our “parched bid for language,” our need to form vowels and consonants! The titles of the poems, as well, often signal Nightingale’s preoccupation. “The Woman Who Talked Until She Ran Out of Words” and “Proverb: If You Have Nothing Good To Say Then Keep Your Mouth Shut.” And a few of them more specifically prefigure Alphalexia, particularly the title poem “Singing in the Key of L”
“It would be no use, they said: you’re tone deaf,
they said, you sing in the key of L.
Lousy, limp, lame, L for sounds like ’ell.”
Alphalexia overflows quite naturally with this sort of alliterative wordplay, often humorous, sometimes a little scary, and occasionally profound. There’s a certain mischievous joy in this surfeit of alliteration – this breaking of one of the current rules of poetry. For instance, the beginning of the poem “H”:
“Holy hell, he hiccoughed, how hateful
hypocrites can be, how hermetic
in nature, how homogenously hindsightful. . .”
And slipped into the fun is a genuine insight!
Many of the poems begin with an analysis of the visual appearance of the letter, moving soon to some common definitions, then a more personal meditation on various meanings the letter holds. But despite the fairly frequent similarity in form, each poem stands happily on its own.
“How round, how buxom!
No wonder bosom begins with B.
Say it aloud, it’s a noun, a verb,
a grade less than perfect.
Observe its curves!
How could it ever be second rate?”
Sexy, amusing, brash, these poems have many qualities of Nightingale’s earlier work, but quite naturally, fewer soft, heart-stopping lines, which is not to say that she shies away from the wittily serious: “Don’t try to convince me/you’re on the rebound, the rate/of recidivism is astonishing.” And, indeed, the sublime does shine through on occasion, as in the lovely poem “C”, with its nod to Wallace Stevens.
“Remember Crispin sailing on an open C?
It is only now, I realize how similar C is to sea,
The roll and pitch of that arc
a sideways wave hello or goodbye.
Who is to say? When the nights are clear
no clouds hang low, and stars console the moon.
Who waits in chastened corners of darkness?
Who is out there, alone, baying to the sky?
Who could tell a chord from a choral,
a church from a church key?”
And we see entreaties and philosophical moments among these surprisingly disparate verses. “M” starts with mothers and moves smoothly to advice for their sons: “… All boys should memorize:/My mother is a woman./My mother is my friend./Women are my friends.” A more personal bit of neatly phrased philosophical analysis comes in the poem “Q”:
“I’m just another quirk, a tidbit
of humanity, a quarter note, quaking
in the book of life, queued
in line like everyone else.”
Nightingale’s ability to muster up the apt yet startlingly original simile was apparent in her earlier books – “I have listened to the wind tell stories/the trees drop their leaves like applause.” In her poem “Defining the Blues,” she comes up with this persuasive combination: “It is slate blue or pale gray,/and tastes like your first cigarette.” The same holds true in Alphalexia, where her unique reflections on the sexual organs are particularly piquant.“Ever notice how a Portobello/and penis are much the same shape?” The first word in the poem “V”, is, unsurprisingly “Vagina.” “Take away the sex and it’s all/sharp angles; suitable only/for planes and geese.”
The poems in this genuinely unique collection are a pleasure to read and re-read. It’s as if the dictionary were written by a brilliant linguist with the sensibility of the Marx Brothers. Conversational, exuberant, teasing, and challenging, Alphalexia finally convinces the reader that Barbra Nightingale is right – “… words do more/than signify: they mean.”