Orlando White

To See Letters

Everything I write requires this: Alphabet.

It was a notion I did not know when I was six years old. In kindergarten I was more
interested in the image of a letter on a flash card. I noticed its shape distinguishing
itself from its background. Then, with my eyes I tore the O in half. In that moment I
felt language separate from its form.

I recall my mother playing a word puzzle. She’d circle a line of letters amongst many
other letters scattered on the page. She treated each word carefully never touching the
pen to the letters. Then, she would give me the pen. I would circle random letters.
She’d smile and give me a hug.

My mother once told me that my step-dad found a picture of my real father. He ripped
it up. To this day, I still do not know who my father is.

I always called my step-dad, David. And he called me by my middle name, Orson. To
him it was better than looking at me and calling me “son.” I am still ashamed of my
middle name.

He tried to teach me how to spell.

I showed him homework from my first grade class. It was a list of words assigned for
me to spell. He looked at me as he was sharpening a pencil with his knife. I remember
the way he forced my hand to write. How the pencil stabbed each letter, the lead
smearing. I imagined each word bruising as I stared at them.

The words reminded me of the word puzzle.

But without images it meant nothing at all.

He said, “Spell them out.”

I could not. “Then sound them out first!”

I recall a day, like many other days in grammar school, when an older boy made fun of
me because I could not speak proper English. I always mispronounced words, and I
would wonder how to spell them.

I still could not move the pencil in my hand. I saw the letters lined up on paper, but I
wanted to circle them.

He shouted out, “Spell them out you little fucker! I am going to hit you if you don’t.”

I remember the shape of his fist.

No one was around, not even my mother. It was as close to intimacy as I got with my
step-dad. I did not say anything to anyone. He bought me toys as an act of contrition. I forgave him.

When David hit me in the head, I saw stars in the shape of the Alphabet. Years later,
my fascination for letters resulted in poems.

Orlando White
“To See Letters” is from Bone Light (Red Hen Press, 2009).