scaling letters: rob mclennan and How the alphabet was made
by Aaron Daigle
rob mclennan's How the alphabet was made, subtitled [an instructional]. What this 2014 chapbook instructs might be the characterization of the alphabet. Getting ahold of slippery letters seems a recent poetic preoccupation in Canada: Christian Bok's eunoia formally constricted himself to one vowel in each word, rob suggests a concept behind each letter and uses that as the limitation.
The chapbook is unassuming in appearance, but the cover hints at the project. The first fifteen letters of the alphabet are bubbled with a corresponding hieroglyphic, alluding to a time where letters were not abstracted from concepts. Though there are fifteen poems in the book, they do not correspond to the letters on the cover.
"A" is "shocked, an appetite." We say "a" when surprised or opening mouths.
"B" is "bewitching," sexual.
"C" is musical, "Below middle" C, and describes how music blurs distinctions, "conflate"s.
"F#" is "A failing, flustered," struggling.
"G-d" is spiritual.
"Hh" is "connecting, land-bridge."
"M" is "miracles."
"O" is "A flower, two out of this grief."
"Ph" is a doctor, "Chemicals and the subsequent mouth."
"r" is for regret.
"U" is displaced, "Snowfall: we need less / a person,"
"V" is "The basic mysteries adrift, / a shrapnel feeling."
"xxx," is the "basic mystery" of sex: "Such Hubble shapes in crinoline; vernacular / ethics, tiny / bubbles, baubles. Take it / all off." Where "Outside: / is very, very bright."
"Zed" is Canadian, "The Story of a mailman, shallow bed of bone / and whispers."
Some stylisms cohere the chapbook. mclennan uses commas and semicolons to disrupt full sentences. As he isolates the character of each letter, he suggests a unifying link to this letter may be found in disparate words, something that resists linear narrative: "Sidebar, notion; plants and seeds and trees from earth, a suspect, carnage; a suspect vehicle, / what you would wonder: we / were not an end. / Pegasus, thy lusty Minotaur; some alphabets believe" ("A"). These italics provide a second level of text, the equivalent of theatrical asides and parentheses.
The poetry leaves gaps in syntax just as much as the page, space for the imagination to fill. "An impure whiteness, shark" ("Ph"). By arresting normal conventions of thought with a firm grounding in the senses, the body responds to these poems on an intuitive level, shaking a reader from complacency. Not least of which when the reader themselves is urged to "Name, me out of mourning, back into display. Top of the stairs" ("r").
Most effectively, mclennan's keen observation eye leads him to startling assertions about the nature of reality. These types of sentences disrupt logical sequences while concisely starting a powerful metaphor. For example, "This wooded moment, perished like an owl" and "Horizon frames us, just as much / the television; composed of fragments; throttled-ground, // a quell between the bones" ("Hh"), "We, who are wondrously large / present no difficulty to an empty room" ("A"), and "What the dog knows." ("V"). Much of mclennan's poetry juxtaposes the large and the sall, the individual and the environment. The value of a strong metaphor or image cannot be understated.
mclennan suggests that our conceptions of language are constantly shaped and infused by what we perceive. It's easier to sense and feel the presence of a letter when a title points to it. By virtue of being connected in that poem, the poet asks the letter's function: what is particularly "B" about "Bestial everywhere, a blade of synapse, / blazing; we ride a long time on the subway." By simply titling each poem after a particular letter, instances of that letter on the page are bolded in the imagination.
I hope mclennan expands or revisits this project. Nine letters remain to be told of the alphabet. There weren't any major criticisms I had of the chapbook. I'm divided on mclennan's habit of beginning a line with a comma – it maintains the aesthetic ambiguity of ending a line without punctuation while clarifying the grammar in the sentence. Beyond that, "These eyes, yes, a thousand" ("G-d") thoroughly enjoyed the chapbook. How the alphabet was made? Perhaps through a mind to observe, concepts to describe, and a world to realize.