A powerful poetic alphabet of loss and longing

Katrina Vandenberg, author
Katrina Vandenberg, author of "An Alphabet Not Unlike the World," says in her poetry she begins with a story, and then uses it to explore larger themes in the world. Her new collection deals with issues of loss and forgiveness.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Although her new collection, "The Alphabet Not Unlike the World," touches on loss and sadness, poet Katrina Vandenberg says the pieces make her feel better about the world.

Vandenberg packs a punch by taking thoughts about everyday stories and experiences and weaving them into profound poetic portraits about the larger things in life.

But often, readers don't see it coming until it hits them on the side of their head. Take her piece "Poem on Tim's 35th Birthday," for example.

"You would know me if you saw me - still Lucille Ball on the candy factory line, swallowing the proof that I can't keep up. I married like you asked. Other changes you'd be less happy about: your records gone, the CD collection frozen at '94."

The poem isn't long, about 20 lines or so. But in the closing words, that small twist about un-bought albums quickly unfolds into a wrenching sadness.

"All this time I've written from this desk to those I love and never told - that your ashes are inside it, in a Ziploc that is starting to break down. You must be on my paper clips, this page, my thank you notes. You must be in my mouth and in my blood."

Vandenberg lives in St. Paul and teaches writing at Hamline University. A dictionary in a house where she stayed for a while inspired Katrina Vandenberg to write the poems in "And Alphabet Not Unlike the World." She became enthralled by the origins of different letters of the Phoenician alphabet. However, as she wrote she began to see further themes to explore.

"And one of them is, how do people forgive what happens to them, and how do people go on?" she said.

Many of the poems rise from real stories, large and small. One poem came from the reports about missing college students feared drowned in the Mississippi. Others grew from sadness in Katrina Vandenberg's own life.

"You know my former partner is in some of these. And he had HIV because he had hemophilia and had contracted it through the blood supply when he was a teenager," she said. "There was a murder in our family that my little niece was present for and I had had a couple of miscarriages."

The poems are tough, but they aren't morose. In fact, Vandenberg sees them as cleansing.

"I mean, I actually feel better after I write something like that. Somehow it's out of my head and out of my system," she said.

In a poem entitled "OPRS (Eye/Mouth/Head/Tongue)" Vandenberg begins with the tense experience of watching for deer while driving a rural road at dusk. She turns it into a meditation on mortality, and the connections between deer and humans traced back to prehistoric cave painting.

"The deer cannot help bolting into the road in front of our car. They cannot help walking with the name we gave them which once did not mean deer but any untamed thing that breathes and traces back to the Sanskrit for he perishes."

Writing is a spiritual practice for her, Vandenberg said. Often it starts with storytelling; taking something small and recognizable and linking it to larger themes.

"The story is a huge part of the pleasure for me, and also connecting it as far as I can between history and mythology and all the places my head might go with it," Vandenberg said. "But I like to start with the personal and get bigger."

Vandenberg has several readings around the Twin Cities in coming weeks including a reading 7 p.m. Tuesday at Micawbers Books, 2238 Carter Ave., St Paul.

"An Alphabet Not Unlike the World" is Vandenberg's second solo collection. A great thing about poetry readings in the Internet age, she said, is how audience members develop familiarity with a poets work. She hears often from readers who find her writing on forgiveness helpful. It's an area she will continue exploring.

"I think I will spend my life trying to figure out what our job is when it comes to that," Vandenberg said. "I don't know that I have an answer. If I answered it, I'd stop writing probably."

Vandenberg says she has realized this is what she is called to do. She's not going to worry about it anymore.

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