The Typography of Identity
“This is how we understand ourselves/ through placement and movement of ink/ absorbing into paper,” (21). Letterrs by Orlando White is a book length ars poetica—thirty poems that examine why we write poems and how. White breaks up the poem into its smallest parts—the mark of the letter and the white spaces which the letters define. He questions the link between orality and text—the sound of the word versus the ability of the marks on the page to represent those sounds. Letterrsargues that writing—the letter, the punctuation, the word—is how we create our own identity. This is a universal argument, which White explores in a few poems by describing the transcription of the Diné language, but generally invites the reader to inhabit and apply to their own language and writing.
Bone Light, White’s previous book, begins with a memoir-esque poem, “To See Letters,” recalling his first attempts at learning to read and write. “To See Letters,” portrays writing as much a part of White’s creation story as his family history. When his stepfather hits White because he fails to spell words correctly, White writes, “I saw stars in the shape of the Alphabet. Years later, my fascination for letters resulted in poems,” (14). This sentence is almost the thesis of Bone White. White holds up the ingredients for writing: letters, words, sentences, to the light, examining them lyrically.
Letterrs is a departure from Bone Light in two ways. Firstly, in White’s new focus on issues of orality. Like in Bone Light, White also obsesses over the physical process of the mark on the page in Letterrs: “Newborn alphabet cries its vowels and the page nourishes them: a opens into a u, it becomes a tiny cup, fills with paper milk,” (23). However, in Letterrs White goes a step further, or rather a step earlier. In poems such as “Nascent,” White investigates the spoken sound—the journey from speech to the page. White makes a compelling argument that the liminal space between utterance and written representation is the birthplace of culture and identity: “Pronunciation marks are proof/ of one’s own cultural sentience,” (17). At the same time that writing preserves spoken language, it is also inaccurate, an act of translation and loss. This distance or feeling of loss is a measure of culture or identity—how much a person lacks or adheres to the dominant culture which the English language represents.
The second shift in Letterrs is in word choice. Bone Light was written in concrete, plebian language—no dictionary necessary. In order to fully appreciate Letterrs, on the other hand, most readers need to bring along a dictionary. White’s new poems delight in musical but esoteric words, “exocarp,” “plash,” “aposiopesism,” “analphabetic,” and “ogive,”—just to name a few. These words play with orality (how do you pronounce “aposiopesism”). They also prevent the poems from flowing—forcing the reader to perform the pauses and enjambments on the page as they look up these new words then reorient to the progression of ideas in the poem. They make strange a language the reader might take for granted, reinforcing White’s exploration of the tension between orality and the written word.
Letterrs may seem like a departure from contemporary Native American poetry because of its lack of nature-based imagery. Unlike Louis Erdrich, James Welch, or Adrian Louis (for example), White does not establish Native American identity in his writing through a connection to the landscape or animals. However, White’s concern with orality links him with authors such as Erdrich and Louis. White’s poetic form—the visual appearance of multiple line-breaks within the single-poetic line and twisted syntax—constitutes a type of compositional resistance. His poems challenge the reader’s expectations of grammar, rhythm, and enjambment. This is both enigmatic of contemporary (Non-Native American) experimental poetry but also, similar to Welch, who combined surrealism with a Blackfeet concern for dreams, a type of resistance of dominant culture and language common to Native American literature. While many contemporary Native American authors portray trickster-like characters or plot-twists, White’s use of compositional resistance brings the trickster element into the language, the syntax itself—constantly knocking the reader off their footing, word by word.
The only challenge of Letterrs’ compositional resistance is alienation—the reader must constantly attempt to re-engage with the poem, must struggle to follow the poem’s train of thought. Bone White’s inclusion of family history and childhood memory in “To See Letters,” creates an emotional context for understanding the author’s investigation of writing. Letterrs seems to resist such emotional connection. The work is not accessible or translatable by the uninitiated reader and its not meant to be. Rather, it is a somewhat coded invitation to the experienced reader, the language and poetry lover. To pick up the dictionary, to follow the tangled path between sound and mark on the page, both in the Diné language, but also in their own tongue.
Emily Jaeger is an MFA candidate at UMASS Boston and co-editor/co-founder of Window Cat Press. A past Literary Lambda and TENT fellow, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Four Way Review, Salamander, and Apt among others. Her chapbook The Evolution of Parasites is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry PressJune 2016.