Locked in Different Alphabets is Doris Fiszer’s first full-length collection of poetry, building on themes first developed in The Binders (Tree Press, 2016) and Sasanka (Wild Flower) (Bywords Publishing, 2018). The collection is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different departed member of the author’s family. The first, “My Brother George,” recalls often-painful childhood memories of her brother’s bullying, before abruptly moving far forward, when George has lost much of his life to ALS. The section experiments with almost onomatopoeic line and word breaks, the use of space and spacing adding movement and levity to uncomfortably serious confessional pieces:
o p e n s w i d e
shows its teeth
Throughout, Fiszer alludes to the haunting of familial ghosts. In “Turn of a Phrase,” she writes, “The dead keep coming back – / in the turn of a phrase, / a stranger’s walk, / the certain way a head bends.”
The second section, “My Father Andrzej,” is by far the longest. Within, Fiszer further develops the theme of familial haunting, revisiting moments of caring for her father in his old age. In “What My Departed Do,” she writes, “my dead linger / in every crevice of this room / make unwound clocks toll / in unsynchronized hours.” In “Cardinal,” she shares a dispelling of stagnant spirits: “I pull back your curtains / open your window / clear out winter’s ghost.” Through a series of nursing home vignettes, Fiszer reveals a complicated love between herself and her father, sharing his stories of building V2 rockets in the Dora concentration camp in “His Story in Bits and Pieces”, as well as heated arguments, blame and forgiveness, as in “Retreat”: “Before I see him again / I imagine an artist / painted over our last encounter, / stippled softer tones / onto a fresh canvas.” Pivoting from this bitter recollection, Fiszer deftly shows the tender ache of loss in “Snapshot 2” (“I rest in the curve of my father’s shoulder. / Salt scents the crevices of his skin.”) and in “Lately, Everything is Language” (“My heart carries you. / A noun, any noun / an anchor.”).
At times, these pieces convey a straightforward, biographical recollection; in other places, most notably in the third section, “My Mother, Sasanka, Means Wild Flower,” they jump around between narrators. The changing perspective threatens to disorient the reader in places, though it also echoes the brain fog of grief and the confusion of sorting through cluttered, painful memories, not all of which are one’s own. In “My Mother Said,” Fiszer briefly adopts her mother’s memory as her own, writing: “Before my childhood snapped shut like a fox cage / I helped my mother cut dough circles / for Christmas Eve pierogi.”
Reading this collection feels like a private peek into a family album at the end of the night, where Fiszer tells the whole and heavy truth behind each picture. Underneath each scrapbook, Locked in Different Alphabets is a book about confronting one’s own family history, tidying and untying the guilt, indignance and grief within.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.