The Alphabet Conspiracy by Rita Mae Reese

Read  January 2018
Recommended for fans of Rich
★    ★    ★    ★  

It might seem strange, but poetry can be so individual, and each piece can be an entire work in itself, that rating a book of poetry feels like trying to rate a book of short stories. There are forty-five poems in this slim little volume and at least two are deeply moving, including ‘Dear Reader’ and ‘Whatever You Do.’ A couple are fun, particularly ‘Terrible Holy Joy: Reading The Norton Anthology of Poetry in Bed,’ and ‘A Key to Pronunciation: /salm/’

“Thou leadest me safely past the landmine

at the beginning of psalm. Thou makest me a table in the presence
of dipthongs and diacritics…”

Other standouts include ‘Intercession,’ a piece on patron saints done like an alphabet book:

“There are patron saints for archives and Arkansas and advertisers.
Against dying alone

For backward children, boxers and boys’ choirs.
For birds and breastfeeding.”

Her style and subject matter reminds me of Adrienne Rich, one of my favorite poets. Visually, much of it is written in stanza form, but sometimes playing with format to impact meaning by using couplets or paragraphs.


ends with pursed lips and a puff of air
but starts with a closed mouth
and vibrating throat

a humming of our first note of ourselves–
our objective case:
feed me, love me, watch me

then the subjective: a narrow column
of impulse and irreverence
startled perhaps by the hissing

in the middle of the word’s path. See
the curved aching
toward the whisper of–him? her?

Subjects range from the deeply personal (‘In the ER Waiting Room with My Girlfriend’) to generalist thoughts on language. The ones about language, words (‘Hunger’) and pronunciation (‘Mishap’) were standouts. Many poems are about early family relationships; mother, father, aunt, and the death of brother James. A number reference the Bible or Biblical stories, and these were often of limited meaning for me. There are a couple of eulogies, one a memorial to a victim of forced sterilization, (‘Vivian Buck, 1924-1932’), another a memorial to miners killed in an accident (‘Monongah, 1907’).

My largest criticism is that, though a small volume, it might have benefited more from a thematic arrangement. Nonetheless, it’s a solid work, particularly for a first published volume. It turns out that Reese is now a local writer, residing in Madison after completing her MFA at University Wisconsin-Madison, so perhaps I can look forward to local exposure. Without doubt, this book remained on my TBR list for so long because of it’s catnip title, and I’m glad it did.


Dear Reader

You have forgotten it all.
You have forgotten your name,
where you lived, who you
loved, why.

I am simply
your nurse, terse and unlovely.
I point to things
and remind you what they are:
chair, book, daughter, soup.

And when we are alone
I tell you what lies
in each direction: This way
is death, and this way, after
a longer walk, is death,
and that way is death but you
won’t see it
until it is right
in front of you.

Once after
your niece had been to visit you
and I said  something about
how you must love her
or she must love you
or something useless like that,
you gripped my forearm
in your terrible swift hand
and said, she is
everything–you gave
me a shake–everything
to me.

And then you fell
back into the well. Deep
in the well of everything. And I
stand at the edge and call:
chair, book, daughter, soup.



About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, poetry and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Alphabet Conspiracy by Rita Mae Reese

  1. Melora says:

    Excellent review! I’m so glad you included “Dear Reader” — it’s so real and vivid. And that title, “‘Terrible Holy Joy: Reading The Norton Anthology of Poetry in Bed,’ is marvelous!

    • thebookgator says:

      Isn’t ‘Dear Reader’ just a heartbreak of a poem? So nicely done, capturing that unique, hard relationship. I really like the Holy Joy poem–I’ll PM you a copy in the next few days. It’s cute.

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