Alphabets by Paul VangelistiPaul Vangelisti
Littoral Books ($11.95)

by Kim Fortier

An alphabet's letters describe a phonetic system, symbolizing the very process of constructing speech through sound. Vowels denote the voiced components of language, whereas consonants represent the edges of sound—the actions that start and stop the voice in the pronunciation of a given syllable. The 26 symbols of our modern English alphabet, which are so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness beginning with our recitation of the ABC's in childhood, serve as the backbone for the formal experiments of Paul Vangelisti's Alphabets.

The book is a compilation of five long sequence poems (not surprisingly, each has 26 sub-sections) written over the period from 1986 to 1991—each of which re-invents the alphabet on its own terms. "Los Alephs," the first poem, consists of 26 eight-line stanzas. Each stanza builds-up the phonetic character of a single letter (the poem proceeding in succession from A to Z) through intensive repetition, most notably at the beginning of each line. "Alephs Again" adds definition, á la "A is for apple," to this phonetic play ("G is the most generous letter. . . ", "R seems always reasonable. . . "), while "A Life" creates a sort of screwball biography of alphabetic evolution ("The eye fed in the storm of a circle / smaller than any sign in the writing, / before an emphatic laryngeal not found / in English, etc. . . .") and establishes a correspondence among the Hebrew and English as well as other related alphabets. On the whole, Alphabets explores the ways in which the most fundamental elements of the speech act (i.e., the act of enunciation indicated via each individual letter), when allowed to govern the mode of composition, generate a language field via the energy currents of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.

The effect of these experiments is a highly textured interplay of sound and sense. Vangelisti's seemingly freewheeling tone is counter-balanced with a strong metrical sensibility and a Steinian ear for word play, allowing the language to come together in ways that correspond strangely to our ordinary sing-song, walking-around-on-the-street talk. As with everyday speech, the writing often veers into the clichéd phrasings and platitudes that riddle our language; yet, while the work-a-day world generally allows the platitudes to slip on through, the collision of these banal yet seemingly magnetic (who can resist?) utterances with Vangelisti's cunning ability to divert meaning re-casts them even further—and more definitively—into the nonsensical realm: "Two spoons are better than one when they don't rhyme or reason"; "Tentative little Indians"; "vowels of celibacy"; "Nine out of ten perfumes lack parental supervision."

What interests Vangelisti most, however, is not nonsense but rather the creation of a non-hermetic sense. With each text, Vangelisti creates an enigmatic yet vaguely familiar soundscape (recitation, "D is for. . .", nursery rhyme, politician's speech, neighbor's soapbox . . .), re-figuring the ground of how the phonetic elements of speaking add up to something called language by garnering our attention to how it is that they move us.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000