This poem emerged from a series of fraught conversations with a poet with whom I was involved for a few months, as he struggled with conflicting romantic attractions and I struggled to insist on clarity out of confusion—from both of us! At one point in a heated discussion I quipped, “At least you’re clear about your confusion!” He burst out laughing—in my exasperation with him and with myself, I had spoken more truth than I knew! In fact, most of the passages in quotation marks and italics are derived from things actually said—some are as close to verbatim as I recall, or as I rediscovered them in notes and journal entries of the time; others were modified a little. Dialogue in an essentially narrative poem may not be very common—here, it was the best way to convey the complexities, contradictions, and fascinating but anguished energies at play during this volatile interlude.
The swirl of emotions that the situation provoked would have devolved into a sloppy verbal mess had my journal notes and draft lines been assembled into free verse. Instead, the poem demanded structural control, and early on found its way to nonce form—that of the double abecedarian, with the first word of both lines of each successive couplet beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. I had been playing with nonce forms for a while by the time I wrote this; but this was, I think, the first abecedarian I wrote. The first line was prompted by a remark that my companion made in a guilt-ridden moment: “I feel like an assassin.” But this confession was too raw, and really too much his; the poem had to begin more obliquely, with nuance and wit—and sustain that wit throughout. How else to redeem the (“Write it!”) emotional disaster of this liaison, or at least make it aesthetically interesting?
I started with some version of the allusion to assassins, and by the time I reached the rhetorical gesture that begins the second line (“Ask any poet.”) and the paraphrased reference to the writerly exhortation to kill our darlings, I could see the alphabetical pattern emerging. I followed it, and quickly realized that a single abecedarian poem of 26 lines would have been too short: there was too much narrative, and too much nuance, to render in a satisfactory but not self-indulgent manner. So I simply doubled the number of lines—two for each letter of the alphabet, grouped as couplets—and allowed the narrative to weave itself though the structure in all its obliquely revelatory detail. Composition was lapidary; line by line, with most lines completed before I moved to the next. Passages that particularly gratify are those which include private jokes (the “Statue of Limitations”); derogatory rants rendered word-playfully (“two-timer and time-/consumer…”); and turns of phrase that never would have emerged had I not needed to begin the next line with (for example) “q”: “Outside, mockingbirds cried / questions.”
Almost finished, the poem still lacked a punchy kick off and a good transition from title to first line. Pondering this, I began to hear a nagging internal echo of a phrase from Rimbaud, and finally located it—the last line of his prose poem, “Matinée d'ivresse” from Illuminations. “Voici le temps des Assassins”—the poetic affair had indeed been a time to behold and acknowledge killer emotions! The exultant energies and the swings of mood in Rimbaud’s piece seemed to presage, or perhaps accessorize after the fact, the emotional extremities and psychic edge that “Assassin’s Alphabet” seeks to embody. My thanks to those who lent their presence and passion to this poem: with “appalling fanfare,” you are recognized here, in your time!
Carolyne Wright has published nine books of poetry, four volumes of poetry in translation from Spanish and Bengali, and a collection of essays. These books include Mania Klepto: the Book of Eulene (Turning Point Books, 2011); A Change of Maps (Lost Horse Press, 2006); and Seasons of Mangoes & Brainfire (Carnegie Mellon UP/EWU Books, 2005), which won the Blue Lynx Prize and the American Book Award. A poem of hers appeared in The Best American Poetry 2009 and the Pushcart Prize XXXIV (2010). Wright is a Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes and a Senior Editor for Lost Horse Press. In 2005 she returned to her native Seattle, where she is on the faculty of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts’ Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA Program.
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