The Alphabet Conspiracy

     The word is the making of the world. —Wallace Stevens
 

It’s a filmstrip afternoon
            and we’re all grateful
   to the humming projector
            in the middle of our desks,
the closed blinds, the absence of a real adult.
 
There’s a vague promise of revelation
            from the title
   and the dark, tree-lined streets, the voice
            calling from a house
carrying within it our freedom not to answer.
 
Inside another house, a little girl in a pretty dress
            is falling asleep
   at her father’s desk, turning into
            Alice in Wonderland
as her mind falls down the rabbit holes of grammar.
 
The Mad Hatter and Jabberwocky
            tell her to lure
   the letters into a trap so they can beat them
            to death with mallets.
We’d like to see that. Without words
 
no one could tell us what to do.
            We know grammar is just a byproduct,
   like schizophrenia, of a brain that grew
            too fast for its own good
and that history is a series of conspiracies
 
by accidental despots. Mrs. Bradford is
            falling asleep on the wide window ledge,
   her blue polyester pants gapped
            to reveal her white socks
and pink spotted shins. We try not to look.
 
The Mad Hatter doesn’t say that the alphabet
            was first used to keep track of property
   or that for centuries people believed
            if women learned to write
the lost world would never be recovered
 
or that the Mayans believed
            outsiders wrote things down
   not in order to remember them
            but to free themselves
into the work of forgetting.
 
That year Mrs. Bradford taught us about
            the Lewis & Clark expedition
   over and over again. We never learned
            why it mattered so much to her
or what possible use it could be to anyone.
 
The professor tells Judy about
            the thousands of words
   Arabs needed for camels and their parts,
            the dozen words Eskimos had for snow,
and a chimp who learned seven human words.
 
A voice made visible says:
            magic is a matter of fact to you,
   Every miracle has to have its qualifications,
            reservations, footnotes
and our heads rise from our desks.
 
The rest of the year will be a series of
            substitute teachers
   who teach us nothing but footnotes
            and their own reservations.
Mrs. Bradford dead of a brain tumor.
 
We sit in our sixth-grade desks with the blinds
            closed against the tree-lined streets
   as the letters of the world rise up
            and, forming a single word,
eclipse our world and fill our mouths with shadows.
Rita Mae Reese, “The Alphabet Conspiracy” from The Alphabet Conspiracy. Copyright © 2011 by Rita Mae Reese. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.
Source: The Alphabet Conspiracy (Arktoi Books, 2011)
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