AMERICAN LETTERS: WORKS ON PAPER, BY GIOVANNI SINGLETON
giovanni singleton’s second full-length collection from Canarium Books, AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper, is an ingenious hybrid work—as much poetry as art object and musical score. It demands its readers’ collaboration, their imagination, especially in her mesostic and concrete poems saturated with sites for improvisation. Similar to singleton’s first collection, Ascension, her second is an experience of acute listening. Her readers listen suspended, as if to jazz musician Alice Coltrane, but not only to each note that singleton plucks from the harp, but for the spaces that exist between notes, between white-space and letter, image and text. singleton stretches these spaces across thirteen chapters, testing our notion of the shape of the poem. Here we are no longer committed to the uniform dictation of the Word document. The page has become the canvas, and her collection propels readers forward, as though moving through an exhibit, growing further entrenched in the silence, the unspoken steeped in both personal history and shared heritage.
The objective distance in this book between speaker and reader and speaker and “I” is most diminished in her final chapters where poems like “Bingo Queen” are intimate and autobiographical. In other poems, the I-speaker, or i-speaker, is more conceptual—a challenge to POV, to language, to our individualistic driving—pushing us to consider: who is driving? And the collection resists narrative, for “The only ‘story’ is the one never told or sold out.”
AMERICAN LETTERS is far from subtle in its critique of the systems at work in American catalogues. The diminishing letter I in her penultimate chapter, “eye of the be/holder (Take 2),” while it may be interpreted in various ways, surely represents those oppressed, erased and excluded from history and current dialogues. singleton’s speaker reshapes language to work against these powers that reduce her, name her: “I quit the uppercase G to reclaim my own authority. // Make a different G, a Vimala G composed from two sized C’s.” And it urges: “Standup the / stereotype. Watermelon out with the bathwater. Let us rejoice and be clean. Clean. / Clear. Unambiguous but not unanimous.” singleton’s book requires that we listen long enough, we retrain our ear to hear, our eye to see, so we might (re)examine our violent histories, our violent present, and question our imposed placement and identity.
—Review by Madeline Vardell