by Arden Levine
(Harbor Editions, 2021)
Ladies’ Abecedary opens with two epigrams. The first is by Thomas Wentworth Higginson from his 1859 op-ed in The Atlantic. Higginson, alluding to an earlier “daring, keen, sarcastic” work by Sylvain Marchal, wonders if women learning the alphabet would grease the skids toward some unspeakable chaos. The second is a blood-tinged spit of lyric from Bikini Kill, a feminist punk band, about lives that can’t be spelled out in any traditional way. Ladies’ Abecedary draws from both energies.
The polite title belies the deep dive of these poems into the real lives of girls and women. It’s rich territory for Levine, whose poems are like snapshots that suddenly extend into a third dimension when you hold them in your hand. “Abecedary” speaks to the structure of the book, each poem represents a piece in a sequence, with Levine titling poems with letters of the alphabet and arranging them in an order.
But there’s more to those solitary glyphs announcing each poem. The letters are initials, substitutions for women’s names like you’d see in police reports, case studies. The poems are introductions to deeper narratives where the reader can fill in the details. From the excruciating-but-healing “tourniquets” applied by “A” to the metamorphosis of “Z”’s brokenness, the subject of each poem is a very particular female identity who lives, breathes, and takes up residence in the consciousness.
Two of the poems pair letters, so there are 24 poems altogether in Ladies’ Abecedary, a perfect circle of hours. The book is slim, modest in format, but many of the poems go surprisingly deep, and, taken together, put bright pins in a large map, hinting at the breadth of women’s experience. There’s a child who plays God and is answered by a parent bearing the brunt of being at her mercy. Two teen friends stride into their future with a new sense of physical power and purpose, while a pie baker’s failure and redemption hints at a private loss and acceptance.
Some of the poems’ subjects seem recognizable. “M” could be Marie Curie, who suffered public shame and xenophobia when, as a widow, she fell in love with a married man. “L” might well stand for Lilith, a personification of untamable sensuality and dangerous seduction. “U” is a homophone, directed at the reader, a terse warning of assuming
1) that you can find the missing
either with maps or with technology.
2) that words will keep you safe.
There is an “I” poem with these lines:
… She got
Levi’s blue jeans, too, and wise
to how fast a girl can go
when the fabric wraps around both legs.
But the “I” of first-person is absent in Abecedary. Whereas other women poets fall to the temptation of trying to define large swaths of women’s realities through their own thoughts and episodes, Levine creates a mosaic of the stories of other women and girls, some fanciful, some terrifying, some difficult, some triumphant—and all believable. Levine doesn’t have just one story about women; she has two dozen, and doesn’t attempt to shoe-horn them into fitting together in a tidy set. The ease with which Levine holds contrasting and conflicting truths reflects both depth and empathy. The poems are free in both content and form to grow and expand as individuals.
The poems dealing with physical vulnerability in Ladies’ Abecedary leave a particular mark. “R” takes on maternal mortality as erasing a fully formed human as well as the mother of a newborn. “E” moves in a circle from subservient calm to the horrors of medical invasion involving blood and the extraction of “a condition,” after which the poem itself, like E’s fingertips, forms a circuit and returns to baseline, emptied and still. What’s happened to E is horrific, but Levine’s control of the poem keeps the reader present and unblinking.
Immediately afterward, “F,” the poem about the pie baker, also touches on blood-like destruction that hints at pregnancy loss. But the poem ends with its subject embracing the cycles that define women’s physical lives and their attendant agonies and hopes:
And what did you do? they ask.
Roll dough. She places that reply so casually down,
as if she had described knocking over a cup of water in her sleep
and waking to find the floor already near dry; this, and not a story
of toil in making, toil in cleaning, toil in remaking, mourning loss.
“F” and the other heroines in Levine’s alphabet don’t dazzle with CGI superpowers. Instead, they endure with quiet dignity. “H” is a portrait of a lonely docent embracing (and embodying) the passage of time. In another way, the solitary exile in “N” abides and even nurtures another, finite form of life:
Here, they brought her
the last zinnia and some water
to hold it for a day or two.
After that, she will
hang it by its heels
so blood rushes to its head.
“K” is a longer poem that reads like a fairy tale. A phalanx of sisters moving as one unit, in height order, carry stones through the carnivorous snow of “a cold land” to test the firmness of the earth beneath their feet.
Levine’s figures include women suffering and strictured by obsessions of mind and body. The fascinating “P”
can’t have any part of her
body touching any other
part of her body. It’s hard
for more reasons that you’d expect.
“S”’s pretty dress is also a “silken tourniquet”, and the echoing of words and phrases (“drumbeat,” “tongue,” “wings”) creates music while also speaking to the obsessive inner dialog and ritual of her disorder.
Several short entries in Ladies’ Abecedary introduce women who are not just at the mercy of nature but engaging with it, letting it inform them with a deeper awareness of how the world works. “O” is a chilling six-line metaphor on the occasional missteps of evolution, and the subject of “V” unwittingly conducts an experiment that shakes up both the cycle of time and the natural order that depends on it.
Women’s sexuality appears in the darkly seductive “L,” the bawdy, bouncing “Q” and the easy, watery bath of “W and X.” But the one that induces shivers is “T.” Levine uses white space to create two entities in the poem, bucket seats where “T” and her lover-or-abductor are riding together, their past in the rearview. The tension of the poem captures a breathless, burgeoning female sexuality, where danger and adventure are riding in the same car:
There is some place he took her from, or some place
she left with him, perhaps
they were tossed out
of the sky, lost their lease on God. So, El Camino
the drive, the unruly asphalt gardens,
the tailpipe fumes
like a long exhale, the tapering
of their history.
Higginson’s Atlantic essay, quoted in the book’s first epigram, ends with a suggestion: “First give woman, if you dare, the alphabet, then summon her to her career.” In Ladies’ Abecedary, Levine has used her alphabet and skill to create a haunting index of women’s anonymous, yet recognizable, lives.
Jennifer Keith is a web content writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. Her poems have appeared in Sewanee Theological Review, The Nebraska Review, The Free State Review, Fledgling Rag, Unsplendid, and elsewhere. Keith is the recipient of the 2014 John Elsberg poetry prize, and her poem 'Eating Walnuts' was selected by Sherman Alexie for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2015. In 2021 her poem “Cooper’s Hawk” was a finalist for the Erskine J. Poetry Prize from Smartish Pace and another poem received honorable mention in Passager’s poetry contest. She lives in Baltimore, MD.