POETRY: "The Alphabet Not Unlike the World," by Katrina Vandenberg

  • Article by: ELIZABETH HOOVER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 19, 2012 - 4:49 PM

Using letters as a frame, Vandenberg exercises restraint in her poems, letting the personal and historical inform one another.

The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, By Katrina Vandenberg

In "Cretaceous Moth Trapped in Amber," Katrina Vandenberg describes a "little moth caught forever in the last moment of before ... And in millions of years / the moon has not changed."

With the dominance of the personal lyric, much contemporary poetry feels like that moth: a moment frozen in time and sealed off from the world as if the poet is afraid they will get it wrong if they venture outside their own experience.

In her accomplished second collection, "The Alphabet Not Unlike the World," Vandenberg is not afraid of getting it wrong. She admits there are "large spaces between the things I understand." These spaces make her work both emotionally resonant and intellectually ambitious as she moves from personal narrative to historical fact to religion in a single poem. She resists explaining how she joins these seemingly disparate elements, instead inviting her reader to participate in forging meaningful connections.

Vandenberg's first book, "Atlas," was a finalist for a 2005 Minnesota Book Award. She teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul. Her second collection is loosely organized around the alphabet, with each section named after a letter from the Phoenician writing system. Each section contains a number of poems based on a letter from our modern alphabet. The chosen letter provides an anchor so the speaker's restless mind can make leaps while the poem remains cohesive.

For example, in "E," she begins, "Once, a man with his arms raised to the sky was part of the alphabet." This suggests another image, that of her sister's ex-boyfriend, Michael, wanting to raise his arms to the sky in a prison yard. She writes, "Sky is space; you cannot hold the blue. Reach high as you will, and you will never touch it."

Michael's work in the prison garden also reminds the speaker that "tomatoes are part of the nightshade family," which takes her to the final image of "the first man" who "lived in a garden and tried to be good. But there were all these tomato vines unfurling around his feet, and fruit proved to be his undoing."

Michael's story appears throughout the book along with other repeated motifs: the lives of saints, trips to Ireland, illuminated manuscripts, the death of a lover. Vandenberg weaves these stories together effortlessly, creating rich poems in which the personal and historical inform one another.

While it's astonishing to follow the movement of the speaker's mind, Vandenberg is also an assured writer of more unified lyric and narrative poems such as "The Autumn Our Babysitter Was Murdered by Her Boyfriend." She writes, "the women talked my mother scolding / Never think love changes anyone we made the beds / made families from knives forks plates / my sister and I obsessed about stopping the wind / from blowing off the playhouse's Dutch door"

These lines show Vandenberg's remarkable restraint when telling stories. She trusts her reader enough to leave these spare images uncluttered with explanation.

More important, her reader can trust that fine writing and poetic logic will carry these poems as they travel across the wide spaces between what we understand.

Vandenberg will read at 7 p.m. June 5 at Micawber's Bookstore in St. Paul.

Elizabeth Hoover is a writer in Pittsburgh.

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  • Katrina Vandenberg

  • THE ALPHABET NOT UNLIKE THE WORLD

    By: Katrina Vandenberg.

    Publisher: Milkweed Editions, $16.

    Event: 7 p.m. June 5, Micawber's Bookstore, St. Paul.

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