January 2009

Josh Cook


Ghost Alphabet by Al Maginnes

The opening image of Ghost Alphabet, from the titular poem, is of the "ghost alphabet" we create by filling in letters that have fallen from a marquee. It is an elegant image for meaning made in the absence of information. Because the title for the collection comes from this image and poem, and because Maginnes chooses this to open the collection, I assumed it would be a guiding method. I was thrilled, because I assumed the collection would grapple with one of the fundamental problems in our information society; all information is ultimately incomplete and we are constantly creating ghost alphabets. The use of absence in a message is a method of communication uniquely suited to poetry. The grammar of poetry, with its organization of ideas through lines and stanzas and its use of aural, verbal, and visual arrangement to convey meaning allows for a richer use of implication and absence than is available in the more rigid structures of prose's sentences and paragraphs. Unfortunately, Maginnes only explores this technique in two or three poems, cleaving to a fetish for lyricism in everything else. This does result in beautiful poems, but poems that are beautiful in the way parade floats are beautiful.

The poem "The Book of Stars" is a good example of this fetish for poetics. The poem is an exploration of desire that travels through the narrator's experiences with want. "...Perhaps I should have listened./ I had both, and want smoldered in me, stubborn/ and hard to ignore as a junkyard fire." Maginnes doesn't trust the world "smoldered." Rather than leaving the visual implied for readers to generate (I see a campfire either dying or struggling to light when I think of the word in this context) he augments the image with a lyrical flourish, so "smolder" loses its flexibility and much of its vitality. "What Maps Will Not Show" is another example. At times, a great poem appears about to happen, but the poem is so cluttered with images it is impossible to navigate through to any of its ideas. For example, "A woman I know gives directions/ in terms of what used to be there -- Turn/ right on the road where Jones had the store/ that burned down -- assuming no distance/ between her history and our own..." There is a poignancy to the direction the woman gives but Maginnes garbles his image and idea with the compulsively affixed attempt at lyrical beauty. Beauty without idea is one of the things that poetry does, but only one of the things.

The best poems in the collection are the ones where Maginnes lets the ghost alphabet resonate. "Submarine Races" opens with the kinds of thoughts one has lying on the beach staring up at the stars before it turns its attention to the water. The title (and the euphemism) divide the forces at work in the poem as submarine races exist to not be seen. Mentions of the protagonist's mother and father hint at a past tragedy and when Maginnes writes "He will be one more in his class/ of sixty-two. By spring it will drop to fifty" he implies a process of degradation on the island. There are forces in every community that work through remaining unseen. Maginnes evokes these processes through his sensitive narrator without restricting their possible interpretations with lyricism.

Other than "Ghost Alphabet," the long poem "Dinkytown," is the best of the collection. Its narrator imagines a friend living in Minneapolis during Bob Dylan's early career, when he was still performing at open mics and in coffee shops. The overt story is about a young intellectual figuring out what to do with himself and there is substance and beauty in that layer of the poem. But its lasting power comes from a posed challenge. Would you have appreciated that Dylan? Would you have seen his greatness? While you were working on your thesis, playing chess with your friend, drinking coffee, and trying to find yourself in the world, would you have guessed the person at the mic was going to become Bob Dylan? When the story of an artist you admire includes an early period of neglect by the world, it's easy to assume you would have seen the artist's greatness, but "Dinkytown," shows how hard it is for us to see anything outside the scope of our own problems.

Ghost Alphabet is a collection of beautiful poems. Maginnes is a lyrical poet, with a solid sense of the sound of words and an artist's eye for the images they create. The problem is that after the initial aesthetic experience there is nothing for the reader to interact with. The poems are momentary experiences and whatever lasting substance they could contain is buried in decoration.

Maginnes has trouble getting out of the way of his own ideas. Too often he sets up an interesting idea or a compelling image and then over-explains it with poetic addenda. However, my assessment might have been different if I hadn't assumed the title of the collection and the opening poem acted as an introduction to the methodology of the entire collection (though I'm not sure how a reader could be expected to not reach that conclusion). I believed the collection would be guided by "ghost alphabets" and so my sensitivity to intrusions into the ideas and images was heightened. Readers without that assumption will have a more positive experience. Furthermore, there are plenty of poetry readers who seek lyrical beauty from poetry, demanding nothing else from a poem besides well crafted images that create an aesthetic experience. For those readers, Ghost Alphabet will be an exceptional collection. Maginnes is a professional poet, in both the positive and negative senses of "professional," and this professionalism ensures moments of verbal beauty in nearly all the collection's poems. But for poetry readers who demand something more from their poetry, only a few poems; "Ghost Alphabets," "Submarine Races," "Dinkytown," will meet those demands. Everything else will be a beautiful diversion.

Ghost Alphabet by Al Maginnes
White Pine Press
ISBN: 1893996212
96 Pages