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Issue 23, July-September 2012
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130

In a 2009 interview with Line Break, an online journal of poetry, poet Katrina Vandenberg pondered her writing lineage saying “I’m glad I had teachers who made me write 300 lines of blank verse, be articulate about 16th-century sonneteers…So many of the more experimental visual artists and musicians I admire departed, knowledgeably, from tradition.” In her latest collection, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, Vandenberg uses her knowledge of poetry’s craft and lineage to depart from the expected in unexpected ways.

The collection sweeps the reader from the Phonecian alphabet, through several personal tragedies, to a wistful reminder of a child’s awkward transition to adulthood. The collection opens with “Prologue: A Ghazal” in which Vandenberg interweaves a meditation on the various ways in which the letter “a” manifests itself in everyday life while talking through the pain of a miscarriage. She writes “Apple of my eye,” your father used to say, A for the round red/embryonic sac. Aardappel, Dutch for potato, starts with A— /ground apple, aard meaning earth, sounds like hard, it’s a hard/world sometimes, hard-packed under oxen feet.”

With this nuanced and exquisite opener, Vandenberg puts the reader on notice: these poems will demand one’s full attention because they hover between the narrative and the experimental. Make no mistake, though: the mix works splendidly. Vandenberg’s intricate matroyshka-like writing may require a second and third read, but the reader will quickly realize this effort should be given without regret. 

More importantly, Vandenberg’s arrangement of The Alphabet Not Unlike the World is nothing less than masterful. Her ideas twist out of one another and create a larger through-line of narrative where one might not seem likely. Thus, she is able to talk about her sister’s ex-boyfriend who may or may not have killed a child and then switch effortlessly to a lush rumination on the horrific rape of a massage therapist and the nature of forgiveness. 

In this collection, words shift tectonically beneath the reader as the poet plays with words, punctuation, line breaks, and meaning. In “C Ghazal,” Vandenberg journeys from the heady abstraction of language’s meaning, “the letter “c” in the Phonecian alphabet, gimel or camel, a work-beast ruminant with one hump,” to the reality of everyday existence in “the things Katrina carries toward the horizon’s starry hump.”

Vandenberg stands witness to sadness, atrocity, human foible, and disappointment, but she isn’t immune to hope. In “Z Ghazel,” she writes “The author should say something has changed by the end. /What if Z hasn’t always been the alphabet’s end?... The stars threw down their spears. One of the hunters/had bad aim. Now Z is a wandering path, not the end.” 

The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, by Katrina Vandenberg
Milkweed Editions, July 2012

Reviewed by 
Heather Lee Schroeder,
Book Review Editor