Magnifying Language: Dennis Cooley’s abecedarium

An abecedarium traditionally shows off or teaches an alphabet through inscription or by highlighting the letters’ use, in alphabetical order, throughout a script. Dennis Cooley’s book is not an abecedarium in the same sense. What it is is a joyful, typically Cooleyan homage to the sounds and intricacies that are part of and stem from the English alphabet, and to the meanings to which they can lead.

Reading Cooley is like a hug welcoming one back to a different way of thinking about language. Cooley’s latest collection invites us down to, and then past, the level of alphabet to shred and rebuild meaning from the smallest elements of language. He often does so using humour, sometimes through poetic-historical essays on pivotal moments in the evolution of language and script, and always with a sense of adventure.

Cooley’s deep knowledge of how language works allows him to out-smith his followers, deftly dancing the lines connecting understanding and language. In abecedarium, he continues to discuss language in an engaging and exciting way, whether his subject is the English language as a whole or the word “and,” as in “c’mon and get over it”:

it would be awfully sweet
my sweet old
in the and

and in and in and
you & me wishing
we would be there
till the very and of rhyme

Cooley plays to his fans, cramming the book with a Look and Find of literary references, from Cummings to Shakespeare, Kroetsch to Bök, Suknaski to Barbour. If you know your white male poets and your linguistics, you will definitely feel vindicated for it. The way Cooley draws on the poetic histories of which he is part is delightfully meta. He brilliantly conveys and samples these elements—from miniscule, single sounds to sweeping philosophies of language—that together lead to the varied sound and shared meanings that keep language interesting, and that make it work.

Those who don’t know, or don’t care to know, the history of the poetic traditions feeding into Cooley’s work shouldn’t feel daunted picking up abecedarium. It is, at its root, an often self-deprecating invitation to everyone to come out and play with language’s bits and pieces:

would you hear me still
red-eyed desperado on edge
riding across the dusty page
rounding up vowel inside consonant
utterly inconstant soundly inconsistent
where they mill & drool

For artists still applying language predominantly to express fundamental ideas like “We need” and “I am” and “This is what happened,” Cooley and his cohorts’ magnification of language on this scale could seem like navel-gazing. This type of poetry is definitely the privilege of the privileged. But that doesn’t take away from its beauty, or from the artistry involved in creating it. To Cooley’s great credit, he adeptly plays to the linguistic elite while still offering something deeply interesting, thought-provoking and even fun to readers less interested in the backstory than the reward.


AJ Dolman is Arc’s former treasurer. Her poetry and fiction have most recently appeared in The Peter F. Yacht Club, On Spec, Grain, and Her second chapbook of poetry, Where No One Can See You, was published by AngelHousePress (Ottawa, 2014). She is on Twitter @ajdolman.



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