Double Double, Part 2 (Abecedarians)

Cody Walker
December 30, 2010
Comments 2

The Best American Poetry 2010, guest edited by Amy Gerstler, is chock-full of dark delights: Sandra Beasley’s “Unit of Measure,” Lynn Emanuel’s “Dear Final Journey,” Gabriel Gudding’s “And What, Friends, Is Called a Road?,” G. C. Waldrep’s “Their Faces Shall Be as Flames,” Catherine Wing’s “The Darker Sooner,” Kevin Young’s “Lime Light Blues.” Each of these poems — and others, too — deserves a post of its own; but my time on this blog grows short, and I promised, a few weeks ago, to address double abecedarians. Of all the poems in the newest Best American, the ones that I keep circling back to are Barbara Hamby’s “Five ‘Lingo Sonnets’” (the poems, originally published in Verse, also appear in Hamby’s All-Night Lingo Tango). As Hamby writes in her contributor’s note, “These poems are from a twenty-six poem sequence of abecedarian sonnets at the center of All-Night Lingo Tango. Each poem begins with a different letter of the alphabet. Although each poem has only thirteen lines, I decided to call them sonnets because in my heart of hearts I felt they were sonnets.”

When writing about poetry constraints in previous posts, I’ve relied on a line from Paul Muldoon: “Form is a straightjacket in the way that a straightjacket was a straightjacket for Houdini.” For magicians like Hamby, the single, twenty-six-line, A-through-Z-down-the-left-margin abecedarian won’t do. The alphabet makes its way, windshield-wiper-like, through her poems, as seen in “Nietzsche Explains the ??bermensch to Lois Lane”:

No, no, no, no — he doesn’t even have nerves of steel. No
point asking him to save you, ma’am, he’s more likely to rescue
rain from the street. Born on your block, not Krypton, he’s
terror with a capital “T,” the beautiful mind you
vain dames can’t see for the mascara on your lashes. You saw
exactly nothing when you clapped eyes on him, a nerdy
zip, not even head of the class, just skulking in the back, a
brilliant light in a room full of blind men. But when he rises, havoc
descends on the world, lightning storms blister the earth, for he
fears nothing, feels nothing, sees everything. From the beginning
he’s been a juggernaut, crushing everything in his path, from the Hindi
Jagannath, Lord of the World, a guise of the god Vishnu. A dark
Lex Luthor was more what I was thinking of than Superman, ma’am.

And she repeats the whole process twenty-six times! (Johannes Gutenberg gives “Lingo Sonnets” its epigraph: “With twenty-six soldiers I conquered the world.”) I have a handful of friends who write abecedarians, and each one has quickly graduated from the single to the double. Why let the left margin monopolize the fun? Why not rise to the challenge of finding a word that ends with “j”? (From Hamby’s end notes: “I thought I might be able to come up with thirteen words ending in ‘j’ but not twenty-six.”) “Disappearing Act,” the final poem in Jason Whitmarsh’s Tomorrow’s Living Room, ends,

Viewing times are on the even hours. The shutter’s in place:
Watch for the second entrance, the tousled bed
(X-ray detective work on an unhappy public).
You’ve heard, then, the week’s forecast? Sub-
zero temperatures, no lines at the Cinerama.

Julie Larios’s “Double Abecedarian: Please Give Me,” included in The Best American Poetry 2006, begins,

Anything & anybody but Freud, that Bic-and-Pez-
Bitten, cylinder-obsessed, Big-Cigar-as-Envy
Calamity of a man who posited the idea that sex
Dachshund-style with Mom might possibly show
Evidence of a troubled mind. How did every concave V
Female its way into his convex psyche? Mon dieu,
Gott im himmel, por el amor de dios — just one night
How I’d like to translate myself without the shrinks.

Does Hamby get “Jagannath,” or Whitmarsh “Sub-zero,” or Larios “Female” (as a verb!) without the abecedarian straightjacket (or corset)? For these poets, difficulties are interesting. (Hamby: “One of the things I love about form is how it gives me access to more of my brain.”) In her Best American contributor’s note, Larios writes, “I first encountered double abecedarians a few years ago, and since then I’ve been smitten by the structural bravado of the form. They remind me of old wooden roller coasters — a bit rickety, not completely graceful, but full of speed and pleasure and quick changes in direction.” (For more of Larios’s quick changes, click here. “A Night on the Town” is both my kind of night and my kind of poem.)

I recently challenged my students to write abecedarians (single or double; they all chose double). I particularly loved their last lines: “Zeus scolds us from above, rethinking our banishment to suburbia”; “Zealous and partial to Santa”; “Zero chance I’ll go from Z to A.” They invigorated the form with text-talk (“xoxo,” “WTF,” “Fuh-Q”) and ironic pop-culture nods (Kenny G, anyone?). And how wonderful that they all chose to double down. These are poets, I thought — creatures who crave complication. Several years ago I had a student who tried a triple abecedarian, with an extra A-to-Z spree running through the middle of the poem like a slightly unaligned spine. It wasn’t an especially successful poem, but I loved the attempt. I’ve tried to write single-word double abecedarians in the past, but they’ve never quite clicked. At other times, I’ve had words or phrases push me toward the form: “Alcatraz” led me to one, “Fuck you” (line six!) to another. And maybe there’s another single-word double abecedarian in my future. “Baby” works as a second line; the name of my own baby, “Zia,” works as a last line.

Put the right letters together and make a better day.

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2 thoughts on “Double Double, Part 2 (Abecedarians)

  1. Aren’t abecedarians the most fun? I loved your discussion. And you are right I wouldn’t have used Jagannath without the abecedarian corset, and I wouldn’t have screamed when I saw Dostoevsky was ended in a ‘j’ in Italian. By making your world smaller, you somehow make it bigger.

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