What I’m Reading: Ghost Alphabet

74º ~ light drizzle, clouds obscuring sunlight, the outer reaches of Tropical Storm Hermine have brought us a bit of much needed rain

This mini-review is long overdue, as I’ve had a copy of Al Maginnes‘ fourth full-length collection for a while now.  I’ve just re-read it and feel compelled to encourage y’all to pick up a copy if you can.  Full disclosure, Al is a friend of mine who graduated from the U of Arkansas’ MFA program as I did, although Al was there a bit before me.  We met at AWP awhile back while reading on the same panel, and I felt an instant kinship.  Along with being a fellow Razorback, Al also teaches at a community college as I do, and so our kinship stretches across SEC football, poetry, and teaching in the amazing & crazy world of community colleges.

Ghost Alphabet is filled with poems that amaze me in their twining of lyric and narrative, of the blue collar world and the metaphysical, of what is unsayable and what is said.  Maginnes is a mature poet, and from the first lines of the book, I trust that the poems will live up to what I seek: an ability to reveal something about what it means to be human in this world and to do so through the exquisite beauty of precision in language.  In fact, that attempt to communicate those truths is at the heart of the book.  The speakers of the poems and the other people they describe are often troubled by an attempt to make meaning through language, either written, spoken, sung, or otherwise expressed.

The title poem, “Ghost Alphabet,” draws the reader into a scene at a decrepit movie theater where the marquee is missing “enough letters..to make the feature’s title unreadable.”  What begins as mere description is elevated by the end of the poem to this:

……………..However imperfect
their showings, the movies always
begin on time, relieving
any audience there is of having
to make stories from the wide blank
that echoes the space between letters
and all that finds itself written there.

Opening the second section of five, the poem “Mid Generation” reiterates that sometimes difficult need to fill in those spaces.  Here there is a man who “tests / another batch of berry juice and ash, coal dust / and thinned wax, trying to brew / an ink thick and dark enough to antique his hand.”  This idea of trying to make permanence out of the unsayable essence of life permeates the entire collection and gives a haunting melancholy to the book.

Often, I admire most in other poets that skill that I lack myself, the ability to create long, loping poems that stretch to two and sometimes three pages.  I do not mean to indicate the “long poem,” as it is technically to be understood.  I mean that I seem limited to the short lyric or fewer than 30 lines.  Al enraptures me as a reader by the stories that he tells through language carefully wrought, and yet these are not straight narratives.  The southern story-teller is here, yes, but tempered by a lyricism that deepens the poems.  The poems move in that meandering, slow southern way, and yet, each line/each word is necessary.  (I’m gritting my teeth in a good way and trying to figure out how he does this!)

I also admire Al’s ability to work with blue collar images and transform them into poetry.  There are machines in these poems and factory jobs and the dull grind of manual labor.  One of my favorite poems is “What If This Life,” which begins like this:

I can say this night is a wheel grinding fine
the edges of bone-white stars so that they gleam
with the cold shine of new knives, the pepper-fine dust.

And later:

But we wake not among stars
but in the world of the ten-hour shift,
the skinned knuckle, where rusty nails wait
to bite the unguarded foot.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a whole poem because it shows that there is humor here too.  I don’t usually gravitate toward poems about poetry or writing, but this one gets the job done so well, it won me over.

Arranging the Poetry Collection
Begin with some mysterious lines,
to pull the reader forward, the way the eye might
work to capture the drunken wandering
of a butterfly.  Next establish knowledge:
………………………………………………………the dates
of battles, obscure coronations, the location
of The Psychedelic Furs’ first rehearsal.
……………………………………………………..The sequence
comparing the father to a clock should come
in the book’s valley,
…………………………..where the decision is made
to finish or abandon altogether.  Next, a bit of irony will
show you have a sense of humor and don’t
take all of this too seriously. 
………………………………………End in rapture, whether
it grows out of lyric depths or the pills you rattle
in your palm each morning.
………………………………………Make sure
the title can be taken at least two ways
and that the author’s photo makes you slim and wise.

Dear Reader, I’ll nudge you to read the collection to see how closely Al captures the process and to judge the wisdom in his photo, which you won’t find on the back of the book, but in the back matter.  It’s so cool when I see a friend there in the author photo, and even cooler when the book is as good as this one is.

Support a Poet/Poetry
Buy or Borrow a Copy of This Book Today
Ghost Alphabet
Al Maginnes
White Pine Press, 2008

Posted by Sandy Longhorn


Jessie Carty

I had a chance to read with Al back when this book first came out, I think… I was sort of an opening act at a reading sponsored by Iodine Poetry Journal in which we had both appeared. His effortless reading made me buy the book and I have to second my admiration for his ability to write a longer poem that does not bore you halfway through!

Sandy Longhorn

Jessie, it's a small poetry world after all! Thanks for the second.

Hi Sandy,

I didn't know that you are a sister community college prof. I did a mini review a few months back on Ghost Alphabet — but yours is far more extensive. Thank you.

Sandy Longhorn

Hi, Susan, glad to know you're in the sisterhood, too!