The Double Bind Dictionary by Helen Hajnoczky
Influence (“poem” broadside #316) by Sonnet L'Abbe
Both titles published by above/ground press, 2013.
Instantaneous – that’s how I’d best describe Helen Hajnoczky’s style. Cascading imperatives grounded by physical surroundings that, upon each poem’s spiral, complete a curious mental image. Just try to resist her commanding flow and read them slowly; it feels unnatural. These are poems to get caught up in and they suit the chapbook format well, considering they’re part of a more sprawling body of work Hajnoczky is calling Magyarazni, in which poems are written for words chosen from the Hungarian alphabet.
In The Double Bind Dictionary’s more intimate table of contents, Hajnoczky has selected poems derived from words that feature multi-character Hungarian letters: cs, dz, dzs, gy, ly, ny, sz, ty, and zs. A title like “Gyogyul” may signal a bumpy path (my online research suggests a translation of “recovery”) but it needn’t shed light on the poem that follows:
“grip rum and hack.
gargle with salt water.
you’ll go from groaning
it’s hard to see but
levitate – leave ash and
wipe your fingers
you hold fever in your hands.
a warm towel around your neck
you’ll feel better after
you’re wrapped in sour wine
and water, soup swells
and boils but
your throat will heal
do you feel better now?
oh well, honey,
have some tea.
there for you
when you’re sick.
now go to sleep.”
Hajnoczky’s work offers a direct study in cadence, in no small part giving a poem like “Gyogyul” its effortless readability, but that isn’t to say The Double Bind Dictionary leaves nothing to digest. Rogue thoughts tend to poke out like sticks in spokes. Amid calling out ways to become a “more malleable Hungarian” in “Cserkeszek”, Hajnoczky drops this little gem:
“wonder how well you know friends
who you cannot express yourself to –
who you cannot understand.”
And later in “Zsibbad”:
“you preserve what you picked out
canned it, keep the jars up on the
shelf, guard it carefully
for special occasions
though you won’t take it down
though you forget what it
tastes like, wouldn’t recognize
if you dipped in a spoon –
stale now, anyway.”
These stanzas burst out of Hajnoczky’s greater linguistic muse and attach themselves to the reader’s psyche, often requiring a slower, contemplative re-read. It’s an intensely quotable chapbook for that reason, not to mention a promising precursor to her Magyarazni project.
When I first moved to Ottawa and researched its literary scene, every article about above/ground press mentioned its prolific means of publishing new and newer work. Broadsides, which founder rob mclennan designed as single-sheet, folded handouts, surely play a role in above/ground’s fertile masterplan but, more importantly, they showcase creative talents in single, brief glimpses.
With Influence, Sonnet L'Abbe filters visual poetry’s pensiveness down to its core delight: eliciting a response. In this case (and for this reader, although I’d venture to conclude that many winter-sick poetry lovers feel the same), that response is of longing. But “leaves of grass”, stretched and enunciated so broodingly from the roots up, twists zen-like thanks to L’Abbe’s aesthetic choice, with each curve of letters encouraging the phrase like a calming mantra. More, please.