In Ivy Alvarez’s The Everyday English Dictionary (Paekakariki Press, 2016), each stanza has a header word preceding it (like words in a dictionary), and the words are not everyday words: they are quite challenging. One might deduce that these words would probably need to be looked up in a dictionary. And yet, the stanzas oppose the words in a lovely and complex way. Alvarez’s lines evoke extremely relatable emotions such as loneliness, abandonment, and change. There is also a theme of lost childhood.
Almost immediately there are references to candy, haircuts, and marbles. The sparse illustrations created by Kim Vousden further the tone of the collection, in that the reader feels like they are looking up information when thumbing through the pages and discovering a hidden surprise instead when a small drawing appears. (These drawings are similar to those found in real dictionaries; you never know which word will have a pictorial addition at the bottom of the page.) Each letter of the alphabet is presented sequentially, as in a standard dictionary.
nothing was more prized by me at the time
tried not to cry when the locks fell and fell
scissors open a cross a burning brand
a nape too bare and shorn
the lightest armour gone
and then further down the page:
hungry for touch a touch hunger
brushing against cloth window latches walls
staring in at vignettes of affection
the open arm
the gathering embrace
“Exscind” means to “cut” or “tear.” A more complex word to choose—and yet paired with the haircut and the tears, there is an intense feeling of youth. Loss is associated with this word through the eyes of a child. On the opposing page is a small picture of an opened scissor, sharp blades open, pose a threat.
The next stanza depicts a hungering for connection, staring at intimacy from afar, ungraspable. This feeling of yearning runs throughout the book.
Another allusion to childhood, however, even more dark, is on the next page under “F.” One of the opening words is fother:
nineteen and half cubic weight
lead sinker drops in the sea
untethered by rope or string
a small ghost disappearing
marbles leaping form pit to pit
all the soil thumbed of dirt
dimples filled with rain
At the bottom of this page after the last stanza is an image of one lone marble, seemingly bigger than life, almost like the sun, waiting to be pushed off the page.
The word “fother” is an Old English reference to a unit of measurement and the word “foveate” references the fovea of the eye (where visual acuity is at its most colorful and useful.) But Alvarez turns these words on their sides. Nineteen and a half seems like a birth length and foveate in relation to dimples filled with rain allude to something not meant to be left out in the elements, something that should be moving on its own but is not.
Pairing these more complex words with haunting and surreal lines of loss is powerful and foreboding. Then the detailed illustrations on different pages, the lone images that appear every once in a while, draw attention to the blank space around them making the reader ponder what is missing? who should be holding these objects?
With the letter “G” there is an actual reference to language. We use a dictionary to gain knowledge, to learn, to gather extra details surrounding something we already know a little bit about. But with the “G’ section, there is a sense of losing rather than gaining. This is reminiscent of perhaps just using the words we use; it seems rare that people continue to expand their vocabulary on a daily basis. The “G” pages give us a sense of the speaker’s journey.
one day I was a native tongue
the next I lost my songs
word by word
eroding over months years then gone
what people say might be true
but usually they say it
wanting something from you
Alvarez goes on to illustrate Mexico and water that was swum in, surrounding fields, a street that a relative’s name is named after, but these places are already like “footsteps in the corner of the room moving from sound to air”—empty, ethereal, gone. As we read further into her dictionary, we forget if we were looking for something specific and enter into a more of a dream like state.
A dictionary is such a hard sturdy object, a weapon almost, offering a weighty thud when landing on a table, and yet we cannot hold onto these words and images fast enough. Alvarez mingles the earth with animals and sounds, with someone’s mouth, it is a dream dictionary. We want it to be solid, we want it steadfast, but it floats along waves, out of reach. We cannot define our images, our memories, quick enough.
Other child-like visions dance through the collection: fireflies, castles, sparrows, muddy boots, coin tricks, etc, but the armour appears in “L” and a kingdom shows up in “Z.” Our speaker has run and hidden, has armed herself, has returned from the castle that was described earlier on: the “stone rose vertical” and the “lumpy mountain” the “grey mortar” is on the horizon.
The speaker needs armour: Alvarez, in “Z,” mentions that “dog eats dog.” Her definitions comprise, or convey, an often scary world.
We want to turn the page to see the next round of definitions, but the letters have stopped. We have no more. Too many words stumble out of our heads, jumbled up, already ready to create a new alphabet, a new universe.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of three full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger Is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, 2017), and We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, which tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of ten chapbooks, most recently She Came Out From Under the Bed: Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro (Dancing Girl Press). Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Prelude, Cleaver, Kestrel, Yalobusha Review, decomP, and inter|rupture.