A Well and a Wellspring

The Disordered Alphabet
by Cintia Santana
Four Way Books (2023) pp. 112

by Emily Pérez

 

 

 

 

What is the sound of grief? The stricken “A”? The plaintive “O”? In her dazzlingly musical first collection, The Disordered Alphabet, poet Cintia Santana explores a world upended by loss. In epistles written to alphabet letters, self-portraits, and odes, Santana breaks words into components, salvaging parts, letting letters lead. With her eye on both the local–loved ones dying from cancer–and the global–catastrophic destruction of nuclear bombs–she rides the wake of grief, sifting through its aftermath. With the scraps she’s stripped and refashioned, Santana creates a new architecture, one that shows the world as a place not for hope, but persistence. 

In the opening poem “Word,” Santana develops an alternate creation story, one in which words rain from the sky and create new language. It opens with “Widsith spoke,” a reference to what may be the oldest poem in the English language: “Widsith”, a 5th century Anglo Saxon piece included in The Book of Exeter. Thus it is not God but the storyteller or “far traveler” who sets into motion a world where “words / rained down upon us for / forty days and forty nights,” replacing the words of before, an echo of both the Biblical Tower of Babel, in which a breaking tower results in a jumble of languages, and of Noah’s Ark, in which ecosystems are erased and begun anew. 

                              from the
whorl of a whelk a newborn
elk stepped impossibly out
blinking. All the earth was
made wet and webbed-wide
a well and a wellspring

This is a world which births wonders, but it is also a world that disrupts: “What was the matter with us / that we did not fear such / breaking?” the speaker asks, setting the stage for a place that is as astonishing as it is devastating, a place composed of new words. As an opening move, the poem establishes the primacy of language and how Santana will zero-in on sounds and letters, in this case “W,” to guide each piece. “W” creates the alliterative moments of “whorl,” “whelk,” “wet,” “webbed-wide,” “well,” and “wellspring,” but it also appears internally in words like “newborn.” Like many of the pieces in this collection, “Word” is spare and surreal, asking the reader to cede the need for logic and succumb to the sonic. 

The book circles around global and personal griefs— the speaker by turns stricken and defiant. In the notes section, Santana states that her visits to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum led to several poems about Hiroshima. She follows her “Word” creation story with “Apple,” a poem in which “Adam // is dreaming // of a bomb // Atom // become // A-bomb // A-bomb,” suggesting that the fruit of the tree of knowledge eaten by the first man metabolizes directly into colossal destruction of humanity. The Hiroshima poems weave specifics collected from history with haunted voices perched somewhere between life and death: “I, so unlike a butterfly / watched / the skin of my hands peel” (from “[E=]”). Santana juxtaposes poems that highlight humankind’s global inhumanity with poems that feel much more personal, like “Inherit.” The poem chips away at the title word, asking it to reveal more: 

In her, it.
It, in her.
Heredi-
tary she

heard it said.

The ambiguity of “it” is one of the poem’s beauties. “It” could be benign–any trait one could pass–or malign–the cause of a condition. In two and three-word lines, Santana arranges and rearranges sounds, letting each rupture create tiny shifts in which the picture evolves. Through scant details–thinning hair, poor hearing–readers get an image of a woman in decline. 

In her was

her. In there.
The air a-
round her, her
air also.

Mother. Moth
to light. To
air. She, too.
She. Two.

Only in the last stanza do we realize the woman is the speaker’s mother, her diagnosis likely the speaker’s as well. The two “her” figures in the poem, mother and daughter, share the same air. At once they are inextricably bound and broken apart. “She, too,” which likens the mother to the moth upon the air becomes “She. Two,” mother and daughter riven by death, or mother and daughter twinned in diagnosis. One of the beauties of Santana’s spare style is its shiftiness, its ability to hold multiple meanings in a small container. A poem that opens as if it is dissecting a word breaks into a vivisection of loss.

The epistolary form of many of these poems creates intimacy between speaker and listener. However, the power dynamic is unequal. “I think of the letters that the speaker addresses as major gods, divine and indeterminate,” Santana explains in her September 2023 interview in Poets & Writers. Thus, in poems like “Dear T,” the speaker is not corresponding with an intimate, but pleading with a god, Job-like. In the first “Dear T,” the speaker’s father and first born have been taken “from under my wing.” “Take it, // the world says. // On the chin.” The world demands that the speaker stand steady and face the blows; she asks that her breath be taken instead. In the second “Dear T,” the speaker alludes to the tests for the nuclear bomb (“Before I was alive, / Trinity”) and the attacks on September 11 (“Then towers, two”) and experiences these global disasters personally (“The knife, in my / twisted arm, twisting”). In “Dear U” she protests her nonconsensual involvement: “unwritten, unuttered, you wrote, / you spoke me. // and so, with no choice, I rose.” What are the forces that call us to engage even when we, like the speaker in “Dear C,” “can’t”” and wish: “let me cease”? Should we rail at God? Nature? The alphabet?

One of the collection’s main considerations is endurance. This arises in epistolary poems, such as “Dear Y,” which feels like an explicit homage to Hopkins in both syntax and diction (“Why yoke the yearling? Hew the redbay?”) and arrives at a decision to persist: “Yet choose–yes–yet, to be.” Endurance arises also in the portrait poems such as “Portrait of a Marriage as Library After Air Raid, London, 1940.” The photograph of three well-dressed men perusing books in a bombed out library was likely “staged to combat the psychological effects of the blitz: the Germans may have tried to destroy our books, our buildings–the symbols of our civilization–but we are still reading,” according to Eduardo Cadava in his article “Lapsus Imaginis: The Image in Ruins” (October Magazine, 2001). As propaganda, the image signifies both the persistence of human creation and curiosity as well as defiance of the enemy who tries to destroy these things. Santana plays upon both the desire to persist and to defy. She slices the image into couplets and single-line stanzas, giving the feeling of a space ripped apart. “Luck has left / the tidy shelves of books intact //… Defy, // they say. Survive, survive.” Though the shelves survive only through “luck,” they call the viewer to gather strength to do the same. 

3.

Under rubble, a ladder and a covered chair, crushed.
The archive, leather-bound and made to last.

What once was roof reveals the vastness
of the sky. Inside becomes outside.

Everywhere, the shock of life.

The chime of “last” in the first stanza of section three with “vastness” in the second stanza is disrupted in the third stanza, which contains no expected echo. Thus, “shock” takes our attention. The word resonates further, as it is both sonic and scenic. And what is shocking is not the annihilation caused by the air raid, but the ongoingness of life. As a metaphor for marriage, the library becomes a relationship exposed to the world– “inside becomes outside.” Both rubble and order are exposed–most marriages contain both–and despite it all life persists. 

Santana’s collection is a must-read for lovers of words and the sounds they make. Supple and sculpted, this is a musical feast designed by a tweezer chef— the kind who expertly places microgreens and roe to spark the eye and the palate. The world of this book is rich with grief, taking away almost as soon as it gives. In “Let there be” “there was light. And there was lack. // …And it was lush with loss.” Santana’s outlook is steely, not maudlin. This is a speaker who has been through the wringer and rights herself again. The world is created, destroyed, and recreated: “Luck and leap. Little by little. Letter by letter. And it was late. / And there was bloom.” In the world according to Santana, loss is a given, and so is bloom. 

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