Alpha Images: Poems Selected and New by Karl Elder

Reviewed by Fred Kreutz

What will one find when coming to Alpha Images: Poems Selected and New by Karl Elder (Waters Edge Press 2020)? Poems—lots of poems (271 poems over 245 pages)—a landscape that ranges from the common to the exotic, from the silly to the sublime, from clear and open to enigmatic and shrouded. First of all, be reminded that this is a “greatest hits” collection—poems that cover over 45 years, poems that have seen publication in 36 anthologies and 72 magazines finishing with an addition of 51 new and previously uncollected verses.

Karl Elder likes to make collections of poems on a theme. He has a series on US states’ postal abbreviations, sixteen phobias, the nine muses, numbers, ciphers, demarcations, and even the letters of the alphabet. The very title of this collection, in fact, is a reference to his poem “Alpha Images” (from The Minimalists How-To Handbook 2005) which is a haiku to each of the letters A through Z. But the title of this collection in a larger sense refers to the very art of poetry itself, an art crafted from our letters—our ‘alpha(bet)’ images.

To get a feel for this collection, imagine chaperoning a group of fifth graders on an end-of-year school field trip. In the morning, you take them to the museum, and for the rest of the day you let them charge around a playground. That’s the kind of day you’ll have in Alpha Images. The morning museum visit will wend through serious thoughts and “lessons” from history, anthropology, science, and art. The poet probes our relationship to the world, to people, to what is real, and to what is to be yet discovered and explained. Some words/images/metaphors show up frequently: mirror, shadows, ghost, and cave (the poem chosen to be the front-piece is entitled “The Cave”). The poet uses many poems to reflect on moments of special recognition—moments where one faces forces of significance: innocence (“A Life,” “Cutting Pigs”), relationships (“My Father’s Dream,” “Pie in the Sky,” “The Elders”), mortality (“The Inevitable,” “My Mortality,” “VanishingPoint,” “What We Are”), and love (“My Ring,” “Constanza”).

And then in the afternoon comes play time. Karl Elder’s poems are full of play—word play, poetic play, thought play, and figurative language play.

Elder’s similes and metaphors abound—delight, instruct, amuse, and make every other writer say to him/herself, “Why didn’t/couldn’t I think of that!” To describe that heavy, wet snow that loads up branches and power lines to the breaking in “Making It” he writes, “The lines sag heavy/with the milk of winter/ … ” A different snow appears in “Sunday Morning Run” with “Such fine light snow/like flour on dough/so that glancing back/at a dark track/enlivens the stride/ … ” In “Items” we encounter “the color of/electricity is orange juice … ,” in “What We Are” “the color of Neanderthals’s eyes,/ … /his sockets small black caves … ” In “Sasquatch” the creature is described as “a myth that beats its chest/like thunder, moans/like the wind for a mate/and, having found a mind willing,/couples like lightning.”

Elder finds poetic haiku fun in the postal abbreviations of our states: “ID Mind’s old ru-ins or/map that says you are here no/matter where you are.” “AK Alas shall be first./Phantom anagram? Pun? Yes,/paradise on ice.” “SD ‘Corn Palace?’ ‘Wall Drugs?’/‘Drive’ he sd, ‘for Christ’s sake, look/out where yr going.’” He finds fun in just the physical drawing of the letters of the alphabet: the letter G is “Balancing a tray/with one hand, the other hand/poised to pluck a veil.” The letter J: “Take pity on this/tattered parasol—too chic/for junk or joystick.” K is “What looks like a squawk/is to the ear a moth or/butterfly, clinging.” Punctuation and other symbols get the same treatment: equal signs are “Teeth tracks like ski tracks/in the white icing and or/Oreo itself.” The comma is “Ah, giant embryo/with tail, what say you-yin or/yang, you little shrimp.” The semicolon becomes “A Spanish peanut,/a cashew—which’s the best fit/for the appendix?”

Finally, one learns that the pace of Elder’s poems is relentless. Every poem from haiku to prose poems to a longer poem like “Gilgamesh at the Bellagio” is jammed with energy; there is no relaxation or pause. Each line is crafted with precision—the reader can feel it even beyond the words. Even in the playfulness of many of the poems, the reader is at work “catching” every thought and turn of language he/she is encountering.

Fred Kreutz is a teacher, writer, photographer, and bon vivant. He likes Wisconsin sports teams, cribbage, gin rummy, summering by the lake, and visiting children and grandchildren with wife-of-fifty-years Karen.

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