A well-known pleasure of the anagram is that sometimes it makes sense: from the mixing up emerges a phrase, a bit of syntax, that is pleasing in its own right. Like finding an amethyst in a streambed. (Which I did, as a kid—and then I found out that the rock-finding guy who was visiting us had planted it in the stream in front of me. He thought I should be rewarded for my effort. But it felt like a false reward to me.)
No one plants the especially crystalline anagram. You find them fair and square. My dearest dear, which I’m working on, has offered up a few good ones. Some are pretty:
Some of them express facets of the human condition:
Am tardy. See red.
—which is no fun for anybody, but which happens. One more, kind of Shakespearean, and possibly an answer to the previous one:
Stay mere dread.
Should I call these things micropoems? They are smaller than what others are calling micropoetry right now (they’re many fewer than 140 characters, to use one measure). I wanted to say nano, but are they small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier? Besides, everything is nano of late.
But my present sample, I am realizing, is perhaps skewed—my dearest dear has 13 letters, which is long(ish) for an endearment. This changes things. Most endearments are too short for the descriptor micro.
So nano it is.
The endearment ending “peaches” was published a couple weeks back as part of the 100,000 Poets for Change anthology at Fieralingue. This is really a coincidence of timing—it happened to be ready, and the anthology call was there, a confluence which serves to foreground some things about the poem that I had formerly been muttering about to myself only.
For so long I had the best-words part of this endearment, but the best order for them eluded me. So a narrative emerged to help me as I revised. “Cease,” “ash heap” and “cheep” suggested a phoenix to me—burning up, then resurrection. “She paces, hep as cash” felt like the push against the feminine that I sometimes feel. The “she” in my mind was wearing tweed, and a little cap, possibly. Expecting trouble but brazen in the face of it. About to change. Maybe to embody the gender he really was. Maybe just to bust loose.
I said the story about resurrection and about gender to A. a while back and he did not buy it. It seemed too far-fetched to him. I was disappointed, but as I have mentioned before, this circumstance is okay—the phoenixical skeleton upon which I have draped the poem as I’ve worked on it is not an essential part of the finished poem. It is less skeleton than clothes-horse. I pat it on the rump, say thanks, and let it run off into the field where retired clothes-horses spend their days.
Because I don’t want that framework to determine an end-meaning for the poem. It can’t, realistically; it’s not part of the poem proper, and the markers that originally suggested it often change as I revise. “Cease” became “Cease speech”; that and the “cheeps” at the end may say something about language. A change of language. A good silence, then (a) great cheer.
On September 24, the day of 100,000 Poets for Change, I’ll hand out broadsides of the peaches endearment. If you would like one, you can let me know. I am for change.
When my brother was little, four or five, he had a collection of action figures. “Cave-mans,” he called them, and he loved them. He sat at the bottom of the stairs, on the subdued, 1990s blue and cream of the round braided rug, leaning on the first step and enacting a fight between two of these figurines, which were small enough for him to hold around the middle.
“And he pkoh, and he pkoh,” he said, banging them into each other. The noise he made was a really good pow noise, the consonants a p and something like an aspirated ch, followed by an o sound that had a little u in it, like the vowels of “foe” and “true” combined. This sound was the verb. He told himself the story they were acting out.
Not all, but some, of the Endearments are like action figures. The anagrammed words suggest a story, an idea. As I revise, I move the words around to enact it, change the story to work better with the words. This supplies shape to something that might not always offer clear choices for what will sound and look best.
As the pkoh is not inherently visible in the action figure—it requires my brother to make itself known—the stories I tell with the poems as part of making them are not necessarily visible in the finished poem. But they give shape to the thing I’m working on.
The poem ending “beloved” came to be in this way. When I think of it, I think of a couple who are making a house (N and C, for instance). The never-ending decisions to be made about what fixtures to order, what to build and what to pay someone else to build, how audacious to be in choices of paint colors; the encouragements and frustrations of doing something big with a partner. . . .
So, “be bold,” I imagine one saying to the other. “Bevel, vee.” As I made the poem, this helped me choose what words to use and in what order to say them. The act of moving the words around, either with a pencil on a printed sheet or (less preferably) on my computer screen, is like playing with action figures also. A humming, quiet, thoughtful playing, punctuated by sudden exactitude—the right place found for a word, two words saying just the right sounds.
I was an early reader, and my mind has always had things to say about words. When I was young, one habit it had was to make an acronym of the words in any sentence running through it, then imagine how to pronounce that acronym. The results were not often pleasing, consonants clunking up against each other. But my brain was nonetheless pleased. I tried to stop it, sometimes; then, for the most part, it faded away on its own.
Some people get a similar mental satisfaction from contemplating shape and form, or number. I like an artful lamp as well as anyone, and I dislike being in poorly designed spaces. I would like to be able to read the formulas I encounter in scientific papers, and toward this I am reading a slim little book called Understanding Mathematics. (For the record, I also dislike the anagrams puzzle in the newspaper–it’s not solely the figuring-out that motivates me, although that is nice; when I take apart a word, I’m exploring, not trying to figure out an end someone else has already concluded.)
But I don’t get the same cerebral hit from regarding the heart-shaped leaves of the houseplants in the break room at work, for instance, or the salt shakers (which are disposable, which drives me crazy), or a column of numbers, that I do from reading the poster on the wall. “What do these people have in common?” it asks. Most of the rest of it is too small to read from a lunch table across the room, but that sentence has plenty of good sounds in it. Thank god, says my brain, thank god you’re here, or the only thing I’d have to read is “Coca Cola,” which the drink machine proclaims vertically and hugely and offensively.
Maybe it was from this inclination to remake words, to hear them and get inside them, that the endearments came.
Here is the home of the Endearments, a group of poems that are made out of the sweet words people call the people and other creatures they love. This blog documents the process by which I make them. In it, I consider the procedure, the words, love and the lack of it, and whatever else the Endearments suggest. Preliminary findings indicated that these things might include vowels, flowers, disgust, awkward situations, various foods, cats, and the ocean. They have included vowels, punctuation, the scientific method, and disgust. And, more recently, cats.
For more on the procedures and constraints used to make the poems, go to process. To find some of the poems online, go to poems. For other projects and concerns, visit todointhenewyear.net. For ramblings on the finer points, read on.
A question I once answered decisively and preemptively has arisen again: the question of apostrophes. Should I allow them in words that make up anagrams of the endearments?
My first answer was a firm no. The apostrophe introduces wiggle room, uncertainty, hidden things. This is why it’s disallowed in Scrabble.
Despite my disdain for the Scrabble dictionary, which I find excessively permissive and full of unuseful and questionable words, I do like the broader Scrabble rules. The prohibition against proper names, for instance, I’ve taken into this project without question—although perhaps it should be questioned too. If an endearment is a name for someone, both obscuring and defining them, maybe if it is rearranged or peered into one might sometimes see an actual name within it. But I like the Scrabble rules because they are a discrete, finished set, convenient and very clear.
At any rate, my darling has caused me to rethink the apostrophes. There are two delicious words in it that could be very useful and expressive: “I’m” and “m’lady”. When I first saw “m’lady” I was delighted, in fact.* Then the rule: no apostrophes. Then I thought, well, what if? And that is about when “I’m” showed up. I would not have seen it otherwise.
It helps in cases like this to consider analogous situations. I certainly use sentence-level punctuation in the endearments. But word-level and sentence-level, as any good hyphenator knows, are very different things. Thinking of the hyphen, though, if I encountered a hyphenated word in an anagram, would I use it? Yes. So word-level punctuation is not in itself the problem.
The sticky wicket is that apostrophes indicate elision. They don’t just join up two words; they join them, obscure parts of them, and make a new word. What about those elided letters? was the insistent question in my brain. They count.
But what if the elided letters are part of the word that is the original endearment? In both of the words in our test case, the elided letter is in fact one of those that make up my darling: “milady”, “I am.” This strengthens the case for allowing such elision. But is it cheating to let a repeated letter—which I explicitly and definitely disallow—hide in the word?
If I look at it from the other side, it wouldn’t feel right to obscure such a letter within the eliding word and not use it in the rest of the anagram. The anagram must include all the letters. It’s more fitting that a word containing an apostrophe, and the implication of repeated letters, be included.
So perhaps it is okay for some letters to hide in the folds of the other letters, or on the other side of the little loophole the black dot of the apostrophe makes. In skirts. In lace. Such things are not uncharacteristic for an endearment.
*One reason: El and em rarely get to be so close to one another, outside of the alphabet. Elm, alm, helm, hemline. Much less making their discrete sounds, rather than becoming part of a consonant cluster.
M. asked recently whether the endearments are beaux présents. This is a good question.
A beau présent is an Oulipian constraint created by Georges Perec. It is composed in honor (or in insult) of someone, and it’s made using only the letters of that person’s name.
The beau présent employs as many repetitions of the letters in the original name as the writer desires. In one example I’ve seen, the fs and double ls scrolling down the page in line after line look so luxurious.
The endearments, by contrast, are made with only the letters in the original word, and each new word used in the poem must have its source in a discrete anagram of the original word.
Each of these requires a certain kind of thinking and results in a different kind of poem. But the poems are similar in the way that their sounds persist and suggest, but do not directly say, the original word. And similar in that they both liberate the sounds from the original word and allow them to play as they will.
I’d say the endearment is cousin to the beau présent. The younger cousin who lives in the tiny town by the river and hardly ever makes it across the sea to the big city where the other cousin lives, the one with the money and the documented history. But who has a good time there and doesn’t miss the city much, never having had occasion to love it more than the little town.