Obsolete--an alphabet of poems inspired by dead words by Katie Haegele, with design by Noah Beytin
(self-published, Jenkintown, PA, 2008)
Merriam-Webster offers a service where they will email daily a word and its definition(s) and etymological history. I'm a subscriber to this service and, a few years back, wrote a series of prose poems under the constraint that each poem would be titled by the Merriam-Webster word du jour. It was a fun exercise, and a way to get past the limits of authorial intent; the results came to appear in my book I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved.
I'm reminded of this series as I read through Katie Haegele's charming chap, Obsolete. Its elucidating subtitle is "--an alphabet of poems inspired by dead words". Actually, in the Introduction, one word was described as “dying” as opposed to “dead” – an unexplained facet that leaves me tickled: how does one gauge the process of a word’s dying? Anyway, Haegele found these dead/dying words in a variety of sources: a 1936 Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary bought at a yard sale for two dollars, an online collection called The Phrontisery , and the bulk of them by reading through the Oxford English Dictionary at her “small local library with a magnifying glass.” She then used the words to title/generate a poem; Obsolete contains 26 poems titled by a word beginning alphabetically, from “Accinge” to “Zodiographer.”
What's fun about Haegele's poems is the cheerfully murky link between the "dead word" title and the poem's text (at the bottom of each page, the dead word’s original definition is given but I didn’t read the definition ahead of reading the poem). One doesn't know exactly how the inspiration worked, though it is fun to guess. For example, the poem entitled with the dead word "Yemelich" offers as its first line, "Unhappy as a therapist's awkward little couch." Somehow, the transition between title and poem's first word has a logic -- it just feels like a "Yemelich" would be "unhappy"!
What makes these poems fabulous, though, is how they unfold beyond the initial constraint that birthed them. Sometimes, one can glean a link based on narrative, or meaning, as in this poem in its entirety:
“I don’t think it’s wise,”
her mother said. But still she
went to him, eyes bright.
Other times, as the poems unfold, one can sense the author's admirable freedom in just following where the words take her, as in the poem “Xenodochial” that begins:
“Crash the discussion board”—I want to, oh my God,
I love the idea of something exciting and modern
like that. That togetherness. But all that ever happens
is I kill light bulbs through overuse and they leave a
gray smudge at the top where their souls escaped.
Sometimes I feel scared for my life, like Little Red
Riding Hood in the city I go to parties by myself, to
places that take me forever to find, and it’s nighttime.
Then I live a thousand unhappy lives in the time it
takes me to step over the threshold….
It’s so satisfying when poems progress in unexpected and mysterious ways. Here is "Yemelich" in its entirety:
Unhappy is a therapist’s awkward little couch
Sad is the sore in your middle where memories flare
Unhappy is “this relationship is unhealthy”
Sad is having to think to remember the last time you were touched
Unhappy is 8:30 am
Sad is 4 am
Unhappy is issues
Sad is the headstone
It certainly makes sense that from a first line addressing unhappiness, a second line might repeat the notion by beginning with the word "sad." But the alternating uses soon come to dilute the synonymity of the two words.
One even starts to read the poem as two poems in one, with each poem comprised of the lines beginning with "Unhappy' and the second with the word "sad". If you read it that way, it's a storytelling poem with two different stories that aren't necessarily linked but are co-existent parallel strands. Which is to say, many of the poems engage by leading the reader to speculate.
Finally, in "Yemelich," the last line "Sad is the headstone" (which latter word I keep seeing as “tombstone”) is a powerful ending by manifesting ending. There's simply nothing to say or think in response to something like "Sad is the headstone" except to be compelled to nod in agreement. "Sad is the headstone" -- there's nothing more to say after a line like that. And perhaps no need to say anything either (and yet I continue to blather -- continue to speculate…).
All the poems contain mysteries and, in this way, transcend their beginnings. They unfold as unsolved mysteries, and aptly so if words are read out of their (original) contexts. Since words do not exist in a vacuum, it seems to make sense then that it is poetry's fictions that can resurrect these dead words.
Still, being a well-conceived project doesn't necessarily mean the resultant poems would be engaging. That they are attests to Haegele's talents: the poems are witty, charming, and/or beguiling. An attractive intelligence simmers from each page. It’s a delight to leave you with the poem entitled “Essomenic” which once meant “a mirror that shows things as they will be in the future.” Haegele’s “Essomenic” begins:
What if it was like this every day?
You’d blink awake, untested, your
room as still and dim as yesterday.
It’s true, the curtain is a limp and dingy
gray. But if there’s one thing I have
learned it’s that you can’t trust curtains.
There’s no reason they should get the
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere: Joey Madia's review of Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole over at New Mystics, and Aileen Ibardaloza's (and Aileen's mother's) engagement with The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes over at OurOwnVoice. Oh hey! And she just released her first novel (grin) : NOVEL CHATELAINE!