How does language—with its rich histories, tonal registers, and lexicon—shape our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world? This question is central to John Latta’s new poetry collection, Some Alphabets, which deftly explores the relationships between meaning and the limits of language. The book is divided into five sections: Sections I, II, and IV are comprised of poems with one-word titles, arranged—as one might expect given the collection’s title—in alphabetical order. Sections III and IV contain poems with word pairings that are also arranged alphabetically; the poem, “Hubbub and Buttercup,” for example, precedes “Gangster and Wad.” The collection has a clear overarching structure, and the poems themselves follow a strict form. Every line in every poem has five words, and every poem is made up of sixteen lines. In the collection’s introduction, Mark Scroggins writes that Latta’s poems reveal a “keen formal intelligence” and “are more than anything else, musical works.” Scroggins underscores the deeply intertextual nature of Latta’s work by suggesting that his poems may be in conversation with George Meredith’s sixteen-line sonnet sequence Modern Love, and with poet Louis Zukofsky’s work.
While Scroggins’s introduction is extremely useful in highlighting the formally complex and intertextual nature of Latta’s work, one of Some Alphabets’s great virtues is that it can be appreciated by a wide audience regardless of their familiarity with the poetic traditions in which he writes. There is truly something in this collection for everyone. Latta’s poems are simultaneously playful and cerebral, joyful and contemplative. Language, and more specifically the sense (and nonsense) of writing in language, is one of the collection’s themes. For example, in “Poetry,” the speaker meditates on the writing process by explaining: “We get to its end / By beginning some other thing.” Here, writing is depicted as nonlinear and cyclical. In the poem “Bent,” writing is sly and elusive as its speaker takes on “the formal ruses of / The sentence.” In “Contempt,” language becomes the protagonist of its own story—in the speaker’s words, “The motion between two lexicons / Is narrative.” The speaker in “Fragment and Vireo” is less confident that language has significance, as he underscores: “A century and a half / Of vapid commentary . . . No logic abides.” Latta skillfully explores how meaning is made and unmade.
In playing with the ways language is constructed and deconstructed, Some Alphabets moves between different tones and linguistic registers. Latta is especially adept at juxtaposing the everyday with loftier, more formal or archaic registers, as in the case of “Stuff.” The title, a nonspecific and generic word, sets up the expectation that the poem will focus on—or at least begin with—a banal, quotidian scene. As he so often does, Latta subverts this expectation by starting the poem itself with an older, more formal register, thereby unsettling the reader’s expectations:
I go poignant in mien
Like one lacking a fold,
All comfy outside the lofty,
Just another middling urban art-
Boy with a knack for
The arundinaceous particular.
Few poets can successfully use the word “arundinaceous” (a botanical term meaning “of or relating to a reed”) in a poem. Yet, Latta’s speaker does so with pleasure and the self-awareness that he is “just another middling urban-art / Boy.” At times, the speakers describe themselves—as this one does here—in self-deprecatory and blunt terms. Yet, in the same poem, the speaker’s scope broadens to contemplate humankind writ large as “incontinent human Frailtie cruel / Extreamst madnesse natures up first / Error, and consum’st our daies” (“Loudmouth and Zigzag”). This poem, like so many in the collection, alternates between contemporary, everyday idioms and more archaic registers. Latta does so with ease, and the effect is one of zooming in and zooming out, making the reader feel as though they are traveling through time.
In his introduction, Scroggins addresses the shifts of registers in Some Alphabets. He calls Latta’s linguistic play a “linguistic multitasking,” and asserts that he “stirs into the mix a dark and glittering compost of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century language.” There are many instances of this “glittering compost,” but I was particularly struck by the poem “You,” which opens with “Limn no attempt to lob / A euphoric yes again against / The ‘verray trowthe syk,’” and ends with the much more direct language of “the / Snottiness of choice” and “you begin to have doubts— / Muscular, foul-hearted, particular, rank.” Doubts in this collection, however, are good: they are the sites of possibility where multiple meanings and interpretations come to the fore. Latta’s poems ask to be read and reread, and upon each rereading, new sounds, images, and narrative threads emerge.
The poems in Some Alphabets are playfully disorienting and estranging, asking readers to suspend their sense of place, time, and context. They are remarkable in their multiplicity and in the way they travel—both literally and metaphorically. Latta’s speaker in the collection’s opening poem, “Askance” announces:
. . . So we’re off–Shanghai,
All motion still’d to inky
Lines, arcs and flysch troughs
Flying, or hiking the freshets
North to Onaway, Michigan, or
Here, the mention of “lines” refers both to the poetic line and to different, far-reaching geographical routes (or lines) that transport the reader and speakers in Some Alphabets to different places and times. While this collection is dedicated to word play, it is equally committed to world making. Latta’s poems explore the concrete sensuality of the world with its “penetrant sun” and “green stench” (“Umbrage”), as well as the “parry of / Cars blistering the turnpike” (“Bluffing”). Every poem in this collection demands to be read and reread. The collection is itself a journey—one of serious contemplation about human nature and our place in the world, but also one of unabashed fun.
About the Reviewer
Shannon K. Winston’s book, The Girl Who Talked to Paintings (Glass Lyre Press), was published in 2021. Her individual poems have appeared in Bracken, Cider Press Review, On the Seawall, RHINO Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. She lives in Bloomington, IN.