Catherine French, "Alphabet"

[first published in the Nation, March 1992]

The truth is I dreaded each wide letter
and by extension the aging yellow-white pages
with the standard letter bearers-apple, zebra,
xylophone, coat. These physical counterparts
were secret code I would never crack-the yak,
its matted hair and soulful eyes, destined for slaughter
or a tundra isolation; the ball, untouched
in a sunless backyard, round and red and unattainable;
the blue dress on a white hanger,
freed of the sticky reminder of flesh. I knew
how they failed in that attempted joining
of physical and abstract, how each sound
fell short of the world. But fear gives way
to routine, and routine yields up
its indirection, that sing-song
also a simple path away
until what remains is as unnoticeble
and profound as mother's heartbeat and blood flow,
those first unviewed x's, their rhythm beat
into soft flesh as certainly as large black letters
embed into page-the traffic washing by at night,
the crickets speaking like martians, the wind
pushing dried leaves across cement in sudden bursts.
But when I close the book, they are already out
and hanging before me like dizzying hummingbirds,
my own thought refusing to settle or still
to definite line, but unable to return
to full quiet again.