In this brilliant second book, LETTERRS, Diné poet Orlando White takes space, sound, and silence into the very page. He investigates a vocabulary of linguistics and orality, creating a tension between the two.
Take the first poem, “Nascent” where the word ‘plash’ appears. “It’s a plash on/parchment sheet.” So we have the plash sound and then the “parchment” sound. Plash means ‘a light splash or the splashing sound.’ A water sound, cut short by the parchment, that is, the sound is cut into silence when it is put on parchment. Or, is it?
This is a book about what poetry can do. In some ways, it is an ars poetica, a poem about poetry. Yet, it is that and more. As John Coltrane tried to do, White seems to move the sentence in both directions at once. And, if language is homeland as Milosz feels, what is landscape? Orlando grew up in Sweetwater, Arizona. Vast tracks of land, and quiet. Wide and deep quiet. His mother was a weaver, and so he heard the weave and woof of the shuttle day in and day out. In fact, the length of wool would become a line of length for his poetry.
And of course, his own language. Diné Bizaad.
One cannot force Native poetry into generic classifications. It spills over into the margins, making the luminal central, asserts Dean Rader in his book, Engaged Resistance. Rader believes almost every Native poet practices some sort of compositional resistance, either through line breaks, capitalization, closure, and fragmentation. Orlando has engaged what poet Charles Olsen termed Projective Verse – Poems as energy on the page, a field of energy. The breath being the guide, written as music, in breath phrases, that rather than relying on received forms, even imagery, metaphor, and the ego.
Rather than an inanimate, White’s idea is to make the word animate. From his first language, Diné Bizaad, “things are animate”—for example, the word for computer is “metal is thinking” and this book among the many, many things it is, is an overlapping of language, multi-vocal Diné Bizaad, English, and Latin, and multi -ways of thinking….
Veronica Golos: It seems to me that with LETTERRS, you are doing two things at once: paring English down to its symbols, sounds and shapes, and, at the same time opening and doubling meaning through a vocabulary of linguistics.
Orlando White: For me, part of the book is about the peculiarity of a word, what it looks like on a page, and what it sounds like. For example, aposiopesis. On the page, it looks funny; when we first see it, we think, how do I pronounce this? Pronunciation here, and in many cases, is also apo-sentient, pronounced in two different ways. Or like anaphoric. It looks strange, so we sound it out.
VG: It also seems to me that you “force,” or encourage the reader to go on a similar experience or journey you have done as they read these poems, because the poems generate an underlying experience the writer has had with language.
OW: In my first book, Bone Light, I never used the dictionary and used a limited amount of words. In LETTERRS, I used the dictionary and thesaurus extensively, searching for words that created some sort of experience through its meanings, in which you would go on some etymological journey. But, at the same time along the way I discovered how a word was pronounced, because sound is much more intriguing.
VG: Your work took me to the dictionary and thesaurus and google, and there were words within words! Perspicacity, analphabetic, ogonek, soma, ictus, skirr, glisters, circumflex, excursus or ogive, which means: “a diagonal rib in a gothic vault; an arch that rises to a sharp point, and a graph that represents the cumulative frequencies of a set of values.” How many meanings can one cull from one word? Oh, and stipple! I loved that word. I would like to talk about the poem that opens LETTERRS; the “Nascent” poem, which riveted me. It feels to be both an emersion—a feeling of words rising out of the page, as if they are our original words plucked out of chaos—and, at the same time, an immersion, words that dunk us into primal sound and sensibility.
OW: First there is sound, the origin-sound and in LETTERRS it begins with “Nascent.” And at the beginning of Bone Light as well, “underneath sound there is thought”: it’s the white spaces of the page that allow print, text to animate, exist, as first sounds. I think that when one is speaking—literally you can’t see the words visually, so in order to see it, we have to print it on a surface. I think there’s a moment in which sound is the origin…sound is the first word.
VG: In “Nascent,” you write: “…procreation to circumflex: Díí, these // pitches of stress these flares over letters//hover, keep in place the strained origin in speech…” Could you speak about the use of Diné Bizaad?
OW: Enunciation, pronunciation are important, especially in Diné Bizaad. Visually on the page, what represents sound in our language are the diacritical marks. So, on the page, the visual sound, and the origin of language on the page is those marks. Accordingly, in LETTERRS I try to enact that experience of a Diné word which Díí is an example. My thinking behind it is the mark on the page really defines, creates an experience too—that there’s also a specific language connected to a specific people.
“It begins at a diacritical spark… of breath… and soma”
And so we enter Orlando White’s meditative, intelligent, and echoing second book, LETTERRS, both a collection of unsettling silence and precise clangor. As a shift from his first book, Bone Light (Red Hen Press, 2009), White moves from the examination of thought to the philosophical relationship between print and sound.
Within the utterance and inscription of a letter, LETTERRS advances what a poem does in its own tightening—that is, how a poem resists, subverts, and fragments so-called tradition. We begin with “Nascent,” a long poem playing out a woven origin between sound and flesh.
White possesses an incredible, deft hand in setting a word with amplified effect. We find ourselves in the clocklike uterus of the poem’s process—a slowed down act of creation. At each break, at each movement of language, we throb into rhythm, weighted, layered, wrapped in meanings that propagates at a velocity maintained by the page. His opening poem carves out a trajectory like a wavelet of sound escaping the lips and pervading the air.