by Katrina Vandenberg
From the very first lines of this incredible poem--the title poem--from Katrina Vandenberg's wonderful 2012 book The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, the life of the industrial workforce in mid-century Detroit crashes against the life of the mind, of words, of art. The speaker inhabits the second world--she speaks in a poem, after all--and yet the first words of the poem are "still I hail from" and that "still" starting things off, without capitalization, indicates that the past is in her, even if she is far from Grosse Ile, even if the world she describes no longer exists.
So "still" starts us off. What a risky way to start a poem, just dropping the reader right into the middle of things. The poem's energy pulls the reader along:
"still I hail from smokestacks girders closed/factories McClouth Steel’s poured slag turning the night/sky and black river orange the tight typeface of houses"
Notice here the number of things in these first three lines. Smokestacks. Girders. Closed factories. Slag. The strong and hearty verb "hail." The gorgeous linebreak at "closed/factories." The nouns ground us in world where fathers "set/ metal lathes on screw machines" and "whose hands would not wash clean." Furthermore, the syntax and linebreaks of this poem mimic the relentless push of the assembly line and the brutally hard work of the (mostly) men who worked it.
But this is also a world where "mothers...taught us the alphabet shapes/of oxen boats houses camels letters row on row/to prop us up row the ideas forward". Literacy is the "prop" that will "row" the next generation forward. The work of the mothers is to help their children have access to a different life.
What is so wonderful about this poem, though, is the speaker's refusal to choose a life enabled by education over the place she came from. Instead of seeing education, language, literacy--poetry--as an escape, she suggests that the poems come from the place of her origin. Remember, the poem begins with "still." All these "unbeautiful...things" make poems:
the world we lived in once we lived in there the letters
trundled forth on their tracks boxcars shaking full
of gleaming two-doors leather seats
The boxcars carrying the seats for automobiles are parts of a personal language, and from this language the speaker makes her poems.
This poem, like many in the book, is also an exploration of the origins of the alphabet. When the speaker writes "Y W V U and F/all hailing from the same tribe the same hieroglyph father" we know, in the second use of "hail" that she is writing about the origins of our language and the origins of her own.
The poem ends with an image of the high school crew team on the water, leaving their letter jackets on the dock:
For more information about The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, please go to http://milkweed.org/shop/product/290/the-alphabet-not-unlike-the-world/