Poetry Review: “alphabet” by Inger Christensen

“apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist” This is the opening poem of Inger Christensen’s alphabet. There is nothing else on the page except for this ghostly sentence fragment that can be skimmed over so quickly it almost disappears before you finish reading it. If I had picked up this book a few years earlier, these opening lines alone would have deterred me from reading any further. I would have categorized this writing as nonsensical and pretentious. However, I was compelled to continue, if only because of the lack of ending punctuation—the second repetition of apricot trees dangling like a loose tooth.

The next page was similar. As the title may have suggested, the second poem affirmed the existence of several objects beginning with the letter “b,” but was broken up into two different lines. The subsequent page focused on the letter “c.” Upon reading the “d” poem, the algebraic formula of this careful masterpiece began to become evident: alphabet is not only alphabetized, but also follows the mathematic logic of the Fibonacci sequence in an attempt to impose order on the natural world.

I was excited to turn the page, excited to see how Christensen would origami bits of the alphabet back into the next poem, excited to witness the next chaotic extension of the Fibonacci sequence. Indeed, the phrase “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist” would recur, but this time fastened into a world of other natural elements, becoming more concrete and losing its initial phantom-like characteristics.

As I was swiftly falling in love with this work of genius, I was aware that the person I was two years ago would have detested this piece of writing. I would not have taken the time to find the pattern, nor would I have understood the dissonance between the careful organization and the spiraling of the scene. Part of the reason I love this text so much is because it revealed to me how much I have grown as a person—as someone who is more open to give other voices an opportunity to explain themselves and someone who is truly appreciative of the flexibility of language.

Before entering college, I had never written poetry seriously. However, with the mentorship and advice of several professors, I was beginning to identify as a poet. I was not exactly sure what such a title entailed or if I had begun to make any noticeable progress as a poet until I read alphabet. It felt like I was holding my transformation in my own hands.

Further analysis of the text demonstrated that the book was written during the Cold War, and the poem began to have even more dimensionality. While the beginning few pages were playful and innovative, the lengthier poems, which alone are almost a thousand lines, began to have an air of desperate incantation. It was as if by asserting the existence of apricot trees that Christensen hoped to protect them from possible nuclear warfare.

I felt further transformed knowing that the methodic assemblage and feverish tempo were expressions of such a deep love for the world and for humanity. The delicate apricot trees, the specific species of birds, and the domestic descriptions of a kitchen are sharply contrasted with anxieties regarding atomic bombs. Writing seemed necessary, as if only words and thought were capable of capturing the world in all its glory, and the book alone would survive nuclear fallout.

With this in mind, the world became more magical. Part of nature will always strain against the form of human logic, as Christensen’s poetry grows ever longer and unwieldy. We simply are unable to recreate the masterpiece that we are living in. Unfortunately, we are able to destroy it, and so I began to think about what values and what snippets of the world were of utmost important to me that I would protect them against all odds. I doubt that I will be able to spin a spell as intricately as Christensen, but her poetry filled me with gratitude and awareness to love as often and as deeply as possible. We are all of this world, and that means all of us have magic within us.

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