Twenty-Six Letters of a New Alphabet, by Anne Tannam, Salmon Poetry, 106 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1912561315
One of the oldest debates about art concerns whether there is some correlation between creativity and sadness. Excellence in art, Aristotle suggested, is founded on melancholy, and this viewpoint found strong support in the Renaissance and Romantic poetry traditions. Certainly, many renowned artists have openly used what Keats called their “World of Pains” to fuel their creativity. The prefatory quotation to Anne Tannam’s new poetry collection, Twenty-Six Letters of a New Alphabet, comes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s masterpiece, the Duino Elegies. Rilke is a poster boy for those who associate melancholic angst with artistic creativity. In 1912 he noted down the first line of the Duino Elegies ‑ Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen? (“Who would give ear, among the angelic host / Were I to cry aloud?”) ‑ after hearing these words in the wind while he was recovering from a period of severe depression. Rilke finished the third elegy in 1913 and the fourth in 1915, but the war and his conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army triggered further depression. In 1922, however, Rilke completed the unfinished elegies in one week, and shortly afterwards he completed his Sonnets to Orpheus. The poet wrote of how this 1922 period of creativity was like “a boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit”, in which his writing relieved some of his own existential despair.
The choice of the Rilke quotation seems strange in some respects. There is a sense in which Tannam emulates Rilke in her collection, namely by writing in detail, and from the heart, about illness, death and grief, but the contrast between Tannam’s conversational style and Rilke’s famed lyricism could not be starker. And unlike Rilke’s, Tannam’s poetry suggests contentment with her life. Despite its accounts of loss, the portrait of the artist painted by the essentially confessional Twenty-Six Letters of a New Alphabet is of a lucky person whose primary relationships in life have been, and continue to be, nourishing and supportive. While the prefatory quotation to this volume from Rilke treats of transience (“[We are] just once. And never again.”), it does so in a YOLO kind of way (“[T]o have been at one with the earth, / seems beyond undoing.”), and so the common ground between Rilke and Tannam, ironically enough, is really in the positivity and optimism which suffuses Tannam’s collection.
Tannam is the author of two previous poetry collections, Take This Life (2011) and Tides Shifting Across My Sitting Room Floor (2017), and her experience is reflected in how well-organised this latest book is. Each of the collection’s seven untitled sections examines a different set of the poet’s concerns and feelings, and two poems ‑ “In Conversation” and “Turning fifty-two”—are three-part poems, with the parts appearing at different points in the book, thus adding a further sense of structural coherence. Indeed the conversations with her late parents in “In Conversation”, taken together with “Turning fifty-two”, provide a kind of statement of identity that is fleshed out in the rest of the book.
Several poems address the poet’s relationship with her mother, who died five years previously, and the more recent illness and death of her father. “In Conversation” includes Tannam’s words in imaginary dialogues with both her late mother, whose photograph as a teenager the poet has “stuck to the wall above [her] desk,” and her late “really good father”. “At eighteen I knew nothing” is a poem expressing remorse about knowing nothing “of death and dying”, and specifically about not knowing “the language . . . the words” to ask a bereaved college friend the names of her drowned brothers. The poet’s awareness is different now. “He speaks only in tongues”, for example, is a poem about her father’s illness that follows the title with the opening lines, “to us now, finding new ways / each day to tell us he’s leaving”. More general poems include “The dead are impatient with us” and “How little the dead remember”, and all these meditations on illness and death are underscored by “Schrödinger’s Cat and the Health Scare”, a poem concerning the author’s breast tumour scare.
Despite this difficult subject-matter, the overall sense from these poems is one of resolution and closure, and “Turning fifty-two” sees the author mark this age with a sense of renewed awareness. It includes a celebration of the “miraculous presence of birds” as they sing “like the earth depended on it”; a brief account of finally getting round “to learning the name / of the tree that grows / on the footpath / outside our house ‑ / it’s a sycamore.”; and a fresh understanding of the role of loving care in any process of growth ‑ a tended hazel tree eventually reveals the eponymous twenty-six letters “unfurled in green”. A prefatory poem, “Morning Pages”, celebrates the creative possibilities of the technique made famous by Julia Cameron’s 1992 book, The Artist’s Way, and indeed it might be said Twenty-Six Letters of a New Alphabet, in its commitment to plain description, is an exemplar of Cameron’s method. In “Morning Pages” there is acknowledgement, as there is in many poems here, of the poet’s good fortune; among other things, the poem refers emblematically to Tannam’s husband’s “steady breathing”, to the healthy mix of grief and relief she experienced once her children left home, and to “the day beckoning”. Tannam’s grief is thus accompanied by appreciation of, and gratitude for, her personal circumstances. Even a poem like “The Poet Transformed into Anger” seems to fall short in not seeming that angry, as well as not specifying the cause of the “ache, ache, location unknown”.
Anger is expressed in these pages, but it is political rather than personal. The opening two sections of Twenty-Six Letters of a New Alphabet comprise political poems ‑ they address poverty, forced migration, homelessness, and gender injustice. In “Opposite and Equal Reaction”, Tannam acknowledges her privileged position when she breathes the air through a skylight in her home and knows, “When you have a home / the morning beckons.”; but she also acknowledges that, for the homeless, the vista is different: “When you lose your home / you lose the morning light.” The poems force the reader to confront the reality that for some families, “on wet days the kids get drenched and there’s / nowhere to hang wet clothes in the B&B.” (“Home Sweet Home”), and the fear in the question, “After the border, where will we go?” (“Don’t Look Back”). The latter poem evokes the scenario of Eurydice’s return from the Underworld with nowhere to lay her head, and the same Greek myth also features in one of the death-themed poems, “Orpheus, heartbroken”.
“A Reasonable Request” is a re-framing of the Bluebeard story (“One small room off-limits. / That’s not much to ask. // One little room.”), and other poems address patriarchal roles and expectations. After the poet gives birth to her first child, a daughter, her neighbour remarks, “You’ll have to keep trying for the boy” (“Or the lovely neighbour”); and upon seeing the poet’s CD collection, a chimney sweeper remarks “I see your husband’s into music” (“While the others at school”). Refreshingly, there is none of the misandry that blights some feminist perspectives; instead, the poems are suffused with Tannam’s strongly individual perspective. In “Role Models”, after describing the male camaraderie in the lives of her father and brothers and “the lads at work”, she states: “I wanted in. // Wanted that life. // Never the view from the kitchen.”
The collection includes several references to Dublin. “Tethered to these Times and Places”, for example, mentions Islandbridge, the Pigeon House and Dublin Bay, and tells of the canal swans between Golden Bridge and the Blackhorse Inn, “[absorbing] the early morning light”. Not all the images of Ireland’s capital are quite as idyllic: in “Glimmer” the serenity of swans and a moorhen in the same stretch of canal is contrasted with the fact that “everywhere”, there is “evidence of our careless nature: / dogshit, cans, plastic wrappers; a wheel, / half covered, glints from under the bridge.” Tannam’s conversational style means that only rarely is her language metaphorical or given to imaginative flights of fancy. Instead of sourcing the poetic sense in language or style, it is sourced in described experience or by reference to an otherworldly, quasi-magical domain. In “Glimmer”, the poet notices the contrast between the idyllic canal scene and the evidence of human carelessness on her birthday, and she does so while searching,
for some sign that all this multiplicity is mapping
a story that’s more than the sum of its moving parts.
I pass the cemetery, feet following a small path
under a line of trees. I breathe them in,
they breathe me in. Hidden by their leaves,
along the length of the wall are graffiti runes
and the single word Soar ‑
is this the sign I’ve been looking for?
Or is it closer to the waters’ rippling edge;
a breathless, aging woman,
by a canal, indestructible?
Similarly, in a poem about “the mystery / of what it means to be in Dublin / in a basement bar, on a Friday night in January” (“A Friday night in January”), the language used includes evocative simile (“where five members of a middle-aged band / are playing like it’s The Last Waltz”), but the most effective imagery resides in the sighting of a fox in the “soft rain” on the way home,
[crossing] the road in front of you,
‑ the music of her movements a song
in the back of your throat ‑
through a garden gate
to silent, rapturous applause.
There are four poems in the collection about Tannam’s experiences when she spent time as a writer-in-residence in India. In “The Safety of Home”, a short poem set during a Hindu festival, the evening in “traffic-jammed Chennai” is “an oven of noise / smell and colour”. Like Tannam’s style generally, the synaesthesia is elementary rather than elaborate. The more hard-hitting, political poem “Intrusion” tells of the poet’s “flicker of shame” at seeing a distant figure defecate in a wasteland area in India, “as if / I had walked in on him / without first knocking.”
In “Trade-off,” Tannam writes that the price of menopausal aging is small given the “bounty [of] the universe leaning across the table, / gesturing with both hands, / eager to fill me in.” The final poem, “A mother speaks”, is described as an “Afterthought” but nonetheless offers an uplifting ending ‑ a sense mirrored by the trajectory of images in Claire Murphy’s artwork, and not unlike, indeed, the references to the transformative power of spring that close Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Overall, this is an easy-to-read collection that will appeal to those who enjoy accessible poetry. Poetry aficionados may find it less appealing, particularly on account of the tendency to the prosaic. If prose is a house, Anne Carson once remarked, poetry is a person on fire running quickly through it. There is sincerity, sensitivity, and empathy in abundance in Twenty-Six Letters of a New Alphabet, but the poetry reader may call for more artifice, more risk-taking, and perhaps more engagement with the shadowy existential abyss, which, like it or not, is always close at hand.
Tim Murphy is an Irish writer based in Madrid.