“A” Is For Awesome
By Kenneth Salzmann
The Alphabet of Longing and Other Poems
By James Tipton
Edited by Margaret Van Every
It becomes clear within the first poetic lines of James Tipton’s newly released collection, The Alphabet of Longing and Other Poems, that the reader is about to embark on a remarkable journey, not only through the letters of the English-language alphabet that provide an ingenious scaffold for the title poem, but also through considerably more than twenty-six facets of human experience, each of them deeply felt and richly rendered.
Tipton, of course, has long been a prominent figure in Lakeside’s expat writing community, notable both for his own work and for his open-hearted support of other writers. But his poetry bona fides, some five decades deep, extend far beyond Lake Chapala and include publication credits in numerous top-shelf journals and literary mainstays, among them The Nation, Southern Humanities Review, Esquire, The Christian Science Monitor, International Poetry Review, many anthologies, and his several earlier books. No less a luminary than acclaimed novelist and memoirist Isabel Allende has tagged Tipton as “the man who writes like Pablo Neruda,” and as a man who “was born to write poetry.”
For all his past achievements, though, his ambitious alphabet poem, never before published, just may count as his masterwork. In it, each section begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, the letter “A” both setting the tone (with echoes of Neruda, indeed) and issuing an invitation of sorts.
Always the hidden sea, deep in the desert,
the breath rushing toward shore, receding,
the blue solitude itself a siren song.
On this simple desert sand, I take a stand.
Look then, although no riddle answered:
this gate marked me is no mistake.
In this way, Tipton leads us through his own desert places, both physical and psychic, unearthing connection from solitude and finding peace in “the twisted juniper I rest against.” (Before his 2005 move to Chapala, the former Literature and Writing Professor at Michigan’s Alma College spent nearly fifteen years as “a keeper of bees” in the high desert of Colorado.)
“How do you honor each hour/each solitary seed and subtle rose?” he challenges us later in the poem, and then reminding us, “There is grace inside each lonely breast.”
The alphabet form of poetry itself is far from new, dating at least as far back as the biblical book of Lamentations in world literature and to Geoffrey Chaucer in English lit. Such modern American poets as John Ciardi and W.D. Snodgrass employed the form as well, at times for light verse, as in Ciardi’s Alphabestiary, and at other times for dramatic narrative, as in Snodgrass’s acrostic, The Fuhrer Bunker. Tipton, though, gives the alphabet poem an uncommon twist with his meditative lines and introspective lyric verses.
As compelling as “The Alphabet of Longing” proves to be, the book’s extended title—“and Other Poems”—promises that the long poem doesn’t stand alone in this collection, sensitively edited by another highly regarded Lakeside poet, Margaret Van Every. Such classic Tipton works as “When I First Came into This Desert Space,” “These Awkward Efforts to Be Alive,” and “Some Nights Are Difficult for Me. Listen.” are included, as are several haunting five-line poems in the Japanese tradition of Tanka, at once deeply personal and achingly universal:
I was already old
before I knew
what I wanted to be
when I was
And this one:
When I am gone
who will remember
my mother was
the day I was born?
With literary excellence a given in any James Tipton book, it is also noteworthy that The Alphabet of Longing and Other Poems, elegantly designed by Robert R. Burke and lovingly published by Van Every’s small press, Librophilia, is a striking physical artifact as well—and a uniquely multimedia one.
In addition to presenting the text of the poems, the book also offers readers the opportunity to watch and hear Tipton, a popular and entertaining presenter of his work at poetry readings, bring the poems to life in online videos that are companions to the book. This happens by way of web addresses and “QR Codes”—essentially barcodes—located at the back of the book. Using either of these (the technology is explained alongside the codes), a reader can enjoy Tipton’s own engaging reading of his work, recorded as the book was being compiled.
Whether a reader chooses to encounter the work on the page or through the videos—or, it is hoped, both--The Alphabet of Longing and Other Poems makes one fact abundantly clear: any list of the notable writers who have graced Lakeside communities over generations (and there are many, from D.H. Lawrence to Tennessee Williams and Somerset Maugham for starters) is incomplete if it doesn’t include James Tipton.
The Alphabet of Longing and Other Poems by James Tipton is available (250 pesos) at Diane Pearl’s Colecciones and Yves’ Restaurant in Ajijic, and will be available on Amazon.com beginning in late summer.