AARDVARK TO AXOLOTL
by Karen Donovan
Etruscan Press, 91 pages
TALES FROM WEBSTER’S: The Verminous Resuscitator and the Monsignor in the Zoot Suit
by John Shea
Livingston Press, 222 pages
reviewed by Michelle E. Crouch
My son’s name begins with G, and so any other word containing the letter, or especially starting with it, brings him immense joy. “G! For me!” he exclaims as we take the Girard exit off I-95. He is three-and-a-half, not able to read but conversant in consonants and their sounds. G-words exist on a higher plane than all others in his toddler cosmology.
To any adult, this identification with a specific letter of the alphabet likely seems arbitrary. The soft G in Girard doesn’t even sound like the hard G in his name. And yet I suspect I’ve unconsciously favored a Marissa or a Megan over someone equally deserving who didn’t happen to have an M in common with me. Belgian psychologist Jozef Nuttin called this preference the name-letter effect; psychologists at the University of Michigan even concluded that people are more likely to donate to hurricane relief when the storms share their initials.
Just as we may accidentally act on a preference for the letters of our names, the standard practice of organizing things and people in alphabetical order can have an unintentional influence (as cataloged here by Alexander Cauley and Jeffrey Zax, each of whom has personal experience as alpha or omega). Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed an encyclopedia arranged by chronology and subject matter rather than “the accident of initial letters,” which he deemed “the impudent ignorance of your Presbyterian bookmakers.” Of course, he lost this battle. So much is governed by the rules of alphabetization that, arbitrary or not, it shapes our world and how we record our knowledge of it.
Karen Donovan’s Aardvark to Axolotl and John Shea’s Tales from Webster engage with this paradox via the dictionary, that great alphabetizer of language. The dictionary is the reference-book-of-all-reference-books. It is writing broken down to its most basic components, as a color wheel separates out the most basic tools of the painter. It also makes for dry reading. As far as plots go, it’s lackluster.
But just as letters pulse with our own emotional attachments, the dictionary isn’t without its own poetry, evocative moments that reward the sort of reader who obsesses over words and their various combinations. On some pages, the entries may all be of a family or a common root, perhaps revealing a previously unconsidered shared etymology. In other cases, the juxtaposition of two very different words creates a friction that here becomes an expressive possibility. Shea mines amoral-amoretto, dreadnought-dream, lycanthropy-lycee, and dozens more, for rollicking turns in his brief but action-packed narratives.
Donovan, who published an excerpt from Aardvark to Axolotl in Issue 16 of Cleaver, considers the images in addition to the words, taking the engraved illustrations from the A section of a 1925 Webster’s dictionary as a starting point. Specifically, a copy that belonged to her grandfather, “easily five inches thick and currently open to the entry on the West Indian guapena (it’s a fish),” she notes in the acknowledgments.
Going from the abstracted idea of a dictionary (which most readers of this review likely now encounter online most frequently, word by disembodied word, than on paper) to the physicality of a specific copy owned and paged through by a particular person suits Donovan’s project well. For each prose-poem or miniature essay in Aardvark to Axolotl, Donovan considers a single engraved image, responding to it in a few lines, ranging from a long paragraph to a single sentence. Detached from a definition, each illustration takes on its own persona, its power as an object expanded by Donovan’s attention.
In some instances, the connection between word and image is direct, often a memory trigger: artiodactyla toe-bones inspire “Pedicure,” the polish administered once by a niece; alpaca turns into “Sweater,” borrowed from a friend in childhood; arabesque (the decorative pattern) causes the author to bodily enact an arabesque (the ballet formation) in a reflexive muscle memory, in “Take the Position, Please.” In other pieces, there’s an additional mental step, sometimes easy to follow, sometimes known only to Donovan. Aphrodite riding a swan conjures the tale of a bike accident. Arbutus, a flowering plant of some kind, is addressed in hardboiled patter by none other than Sam Spade: “So. I did my homework on you, sister.”
The book is not, however, just a collection of impressionistic anecdotes. Within the humorous one-liners, word games, and glimpses of autobiography, there runs a deeper strain of contemplation. The aforementioned pedicure, mostly a warm memory, ends with: “At bedtime I slide into my sheets aware of color in a place where there usually isn’t. Every breath of hope required to keep the whole human project afloat.”
Keeping afloat may be apt; coastal imagery of shells and lighthouses appear throughout. More than one aquatic creature offers wisdom. The archer fish anchors a short piece titled “Language,” which reads in its entirety: “It was then I understood I had a razor-tipped device inside me that could spear any prey I desired.” And the titular axolotl, near the end of the book, comes to embody the poet, left behind by friends headed for more stable careers: “For high finance, engineering, law. For houses in suburbs, and children with braces, and commitments and engagements and mojitos with neighbors. Meanwhile, you stay in the pond, working on how to accept your gills, your strange ability to regenerate anything at all, even a new brain if you want one.” Perhaps this watery writer’s life requires a scaffold like the alphabet to bring it to a state of order. For the most orderly of taxonomy nerds, Donovan includes an “Index of Proper Nouns and Other Terms” (Home Depot, hypocycloid, Janet) and another of figures organized by category (Fossils, Geology, Greek Stuff).
Shea’s Tales from Webster’s adheres to an even stricter system than Aardvark to Axolotl. It amounts, he tells us in the introduction, to a new literary form. On the left of the page, a list of consecutive dictionary terms appears in bold. On the right side of the page, Shea uses no more than fifty words of his choosing as connective tissue between each dictionary term to create a short story. The stories are all titled for their first and last dictionary words.
A representative excerpt from “Amon-Re—Amort”:
As in this sample, the narrative voice tends toward a heightened diction, as demanded by ancient deities and other more obscure terms. The table of contents, reading like a poem of its own, gives each story a descriptive subheading in the style of a 19th-century novel’s chapters: “In which a scion of a prominent family reveals a new source of income.” The characters are often well-traveled, as place-names like Illimani (a mountain in Bolivia) and Rawalpindi (a city in Pakistan) keep cropping up between the non-proper nouns. For something that resembles poetry more than prose in its formatting, the stories are surprisingly plot-driven. There are sailors, spies, cursed bracelets, incidents of international concern, and visions of the afterlife as a never-ending classical music concert, at least as punishment for one particular anti-capitalist who falls victim to his own car bomb.
Although the appearance of the stories on the page emphasizes the dictionary as source material, it can also make the flow of reading more difficult, especially in passages heavy with dialogue. For example, “Where—Wicker,” which is entirely dialogue, features a sort of “Who’s on first?” bickering between its two very lost interlocutors. Line breaks determined by a poet can be helpful in extracting meaning, and paragraph breaks following basic prose conventions are helpful in guiding the reader. Here the function of the line breaks is to highlight the dictionary word device, not to enhance understanding. Is it better to show off the device, rather than submerge it and find out how the stories read in a conventional prose format? The decision is philosophical, or at least stylistic. I personally tend to be an advocate for compromise—I wish I had an alternated copy of the book with the stories in paragraphs, but the dictionary words kept bolded.
Shea’s strategy here calls to mind the writing constraints practiced by Oulipo writers, such as George Perec’s novel La Disparition (translated in English as A Void), written entirely without the letter “e.” Like Shea’s work, Perec’s book contains a necessarily erudite narrative voice and a tendency to toy with genre conventions, though Shea is less self-conscious than Perec (the plot of La Disparition involves a missing character named Vowl).
For readers who would shy away from Shea or others on the grounds that their formal experiments are a showcase for virtuosity but not emotional depth, I’d ask them to consider that a considerable chunk of literature features a constraint of some type—how different are the requirements of a villanelle or a pantoum from those of Shea’s dictionary tales? In his fascinating nonfiction book The Letter & The Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World, Laurence De Looze connects twentieth century surrealists and Oulipoeans with Carolingian monks who created religious palindromes. The key difference he observes is that in past centuries, letters were considered to have a metaphysical or spiritual quality, whereas modern writers are concerned with the “letter as letter.” The twentieth century (and, we might surmise, at least the early part of the twenty-first) have taken a linguistic turn. “Meaning does not reside in some transcendent signifier—God—but rather it slips away along a chain of minimal differences.” Although the term minimal differences here refers to a specific usage by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, A Chain of Minimal Differences would make a great alternate subtitle for Shea’s book.
Harryette Mullen, another author who’s used Oulipo techniques for her own purposes, borrows the group’s N + 7 technique for “Any Lit,” a poem in her book Sleeping with the Dictionary. N + 7 involves substituting the noun in a phrase with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary, like a very structured mad lib. Mullen takes the line “You are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon” and substitutes other nouns for huckleberry and persimmon—though clearly not quite following the “plus 7” rule in lines like “You are a universe beyond my mitochondria / you are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis,” subverting the alphabetic constraint to play off sound and association. Mullen connects the original phrase with African American courtship conversations. Her work has a political dimension, fusing wordplay and writing constraints with questions of power and language: whose language is considered correct and valid, who has been historically prevented from gaining literacy? A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A is another volume of poetry that throws the relationship of language and authority into sharp relief; some of the poems take on the form of dictionary definitions while telling the story of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition. In the final rounds in 1936, she was given a word not on the official list for the competition—nemesis—by the judges as a successful strategy to ensure the winner would be white. In LOOK, Solmaz Sharif takes the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated terms as source material, examining how language describes, and becomes, both a weapon and a disguise.
Perhaps the eternal appeal of the dictionary is the tension between the writer and the words themselves—the search to wrest them from their inert, alphabetized and dissected and defined form and into their hidden order, the one that elicits a truth.
Shea and Donovan’s work lacks some of the bite that comes from interrogating linguistic authority in this way—their relationship to the dictionary is more playful, more dance than critique. Engaging with the alphabet in a self-conscious manner is as old as the Greeks who first borrowed the letters of the Phoenicians and arranged them into an order we still recognize today. De Looze references the fifth century BCE writer Kallais, who produced the play Grammatike Theoria, translated in English as ABC Show, with an alphabetic chorus. Before I finished writing this review, I heard a radio interview with Jezz Burrows, just out with a new book, Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings. I can picture a time in the not-too-distant future when my son will be puzzling over an acrostic poem of his name for a school assignment, deciding what word to select for G. Allow me to imagine him consulting a hard-copy dictionary, although it’s more likely to be adjectivestarting.com: will he choose good, great, gentle, garrulous? Perhaps the eternal appeal of the dictionary is the tension between the writer and the words themselves—the search to wrest them from their inert, alphabetized and dissected and defined form and into their hidden order, the one that elicits a truth.
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has published fiction and non-fiction in Gigantic Sequins, Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and others. She received an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and lives in Philadelphia. Her website is mcrouch.com.