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A review of giovanni singleton's American Letters

giovanni singleton

American Letters

Canarium Books, $14.00

In American Letters by giovanni singleton, readers take on an invitation to see what’s meant by concepts when stripped of the shape or language holding their design – that a concept or intent can hold many shapes or none at all, that essentially those in control manipulate ideas and re-sell them at a cost, but also lessen the value (culture) in that process.

singleton also offers common ideas in different shapes, or reflects history as a concept rather than words dictated by whichever speaker took on the role to tell it. The ultimate lesson here, or by my notion, lies in construction. Language is built from words, designed by letters from an alphabet which was created. Alphabets are born of various influences but when using the alphabet to create a name for something, we create something that isn’t an influence so much as an ownable item. You can tote that idea throughout history, noting how wording – dictated by a shaper – creates situations where ideas and individuals are afflicted by constructs. They become a thing made, a thing that can be sold or offered. This is a very American concept – injecting capitalism into the grit of it all, which tends to destabilize foundations and create a process of collective division. Because this concept is being built into every facet of our culture, we’re led into the acceptance of boxes. In reality, the box theory doesn’t hold: singleton uses specific examples in this collection where identities are represented by their spelled-out terms, such as: African-American poet, feminist, straight, working class, queer, white, and dogcatcher. These terms are then used in repetition to build 3D boxes in the style of concrete poetry. Her idea is nailed down profoundly here in that labels hold meaning, but not always value – and cannot hold anything physically. Power, too, is realized as a construct when rationalizing the idea of a feminist and a dogcatcher holding the same box shape on paper. These labels are words, all with different meaning but built with the same letters – still constructed to hold ideas.

This is just a piece of a broad collection; the whole of this work takes multiple reads to fully digest, and that’s the point: in various ways and through multiple lenses, singleton successfully unteaches habitual acceptance and opens up new angles of understanding. Her use of concrete poetry, effectively and without limit, displays how perspective can grow when fed substance and left to thrive without limitation. In these studies of shape and presentation, singleton destroys the concepts which control understanding and urges the reader to reevaluate how things appear, to focus less on what is named and more on why it is.


Rachel Nix is the poetry editor at cahoodaloodaling, a collaborative publication, and the associate editor at Hobo Camp Review. You can read about her here.

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