These poems—intrepid, obsessive, and erotic—tell the story of a woman’s attempt to reconcile despair. Beginning near the end and then traveling back to a time before her disquiet, The End of the Alphabet is about living despite one’s alienation from the self. Claudia Rankine, whose first collection was the prize-winning Nothing in Nature is Private, creates a transfixing testimonial to a woman facing her own disease. Unflinching in detail, Rankine examines the silent moment, freezes it, listens for the dislocation of language, and writes with a bewitching ear for beauty and violence: “Her voice … held back / as she peeled her face off, ran her hand / over its last expression.” In another poem the memory and promise of invulnerability is described: “Imagine his unshaven face, his untrimmed nails as all / the hurt this world could give.”
Drawing on voices from Jane Eyre to Lady MacBeth, Rankine welds the cerebral and the spiritual, the sensual and the grotesque, courting paradox into the center of her voice. Whether writing about intimacy or alienation, what remains long after, in searing echo, is this voice—its beguiling cadence and vivid physicality. There is an unprotected quality to this writing, as if each word has been pushed out along the precipice, daring us to go with it. Rankine’s power lies in the intoxicating pull of that dare.
Beyond all else, these poems will leave the reader changed, for The End of the Alphabet is the work of one of the most intriguing voices in contemporary poetry.