Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Rita Mae Reese: The Alphabet Conspiracy

                Informed no doubt by her work at the University of Wisconsin's Dictionary of American Regional English, as well as hours combing the Oxford English Dictionary, many of the poems in Rita Mae Reese's The Alphabet Conspiracy consider etymology, double-meaning, and word play. At the same time, these poems are resolutely tied to the matierial world, and they delight in the gathering together of facts and stories from disparate sources. This concern with the world is exemplified by the title poem, which takes on a dizzying array of topics and time periods: grade school filmstrips, Alice in Wonderland (whose "mind falls down into the rabbit holes of grammar"), the Mayans, "the thousand words / Arabs needed for camels and their parts," "a chimp who learned seven human words," and a teacher, Mrs. Bradford, who teaches the same lesson about Lewis and Clark over again until she is "dead of a brain tumor." At their best, these poems stitch together trivia and surprising twists and leaps while managing to never feel trivial.

Many poems, such as "A Key to Pronunciation: /SÄLM" and "Spurious Entry," take up etymology as their subject, and Reese expertly marries that concern with words' origins and word play with sharp, evocative imagery and compelling narrative. "Spurious Entry" includes an explanatory epigraph which defines "ghost words" as "the product of misreading or of printers' errors in previous editions of the dictionary, or simply misbegotten words that have otherwise achieved some spurious existence." Reese leaps from that esoteric tidbit to a poem that begins "I am the ghost word of my father / in my mother's life." The poem goes on to consider several of those "ghost words," intertwining them with the narrative proposed by the opening line:

In the mirror, I
see my illegitimate sisters and brothers:

suffarraneous (from sub and grain) means
a servant who gets his crumbs from the
chief servant who takes his portion from his master's;

Moving between this intellectual consideration of words and their origins, the poem circles back to the family history introduced in the opening lines:

the etymology of the verb is uncertain,
not one of the entries for rape is spurious.

My mother dropped the charges.

Reese's poems demonstrate the authority that comes from deep knowledge of a subject (as opposed to casual Googling and Wikipedia research, which I suspect tempts many of us away from more serious reading). When, for example, in "Ossuary of James," she calls upon the New Testament, a Tel Aviv-based forger of biblical artifacts, and the death of a half-brother, James, whom the speaker has never met, these connections seem inherent in the speaker's consideration of her half-brother's troubled life and her conflicted feelings about him. In the hands of a poem more concerned with mere cleverness, these connections could seem forced, but in this instance I'm convinced that the speaker standing in the parking lot of a funeral home holds all those facts and emotions in her mind at once.

Reese's mastery of craft and received form is also impressive; the book includes several sonnets (including "Smite, Smitten" which considers the "fourteen entries / for the verb quit, enough for a sonnet / on unrequited love" and managed to rhyme "fuck & fuck" with "shut"), a rondeau, three abeccedarians (one titled, appealingly, "This Is Not True",) a "Seed Store Sestina,"and a triolet (a startlingly difficult little form).

At times the leaps between poems are a bit jarring. For the most part, this book is greatly enriched by the breadth of its scope. "A History of Glass," the penultimate poem, moves gracefully from play with idiom in the opening line ("When God closes a door, we break a window") to a history of glass, characterized as "a history / of accidents" that spans 4,000 years. These poems' sharp imagery and narrative leaps will draw readers in, and their mastery of craft means they hold up well to re-reading.

Rita Mae Reese
The Alphabet Conspiracy
Arktoi Books, 2011