I haven’t been wanting to think it, but I’m feeling like the curve of the endearments is headed back earthward. I might be nearly through. Through making endearments themselves, that is—I think they have an opposite, a shadow, a light, which I’ve been working to discern for a few years, and maybe it will be possible to know what that is once I’ve satisfied myself in finding all the endearments I want to make. Or all the ones for now. Let’s leave a window, the possibility of another little curve.
I was feeling this pretty clear and then I came again across butterbean. Not a term we use in my family, but so good. If it were a legitimate endearment and not a fake-Southern thing, I thought, I’d be a fool not to make it. All those good letters! Bright vowels and b’s and all. I looked around online to see how often it’s used that way. I found it referenced on a couple of those sites that are self-consciously Southern, cute-style, bless-your-heart-only-means-one-thing–style, which I did not trust. The OED, which notes many words that are also endearments, doesn’t list it, prob. because it is, in fact, a Southern thing.
But how real? A query in Facebook (about which I normally feel intense ambiguity composed of a, love and curiosity for my friends and family’s doings and b, dislike of and suspicion about the platform and its owners’ veiled intentions and actions, but which is really good for purposes like this) made it definitively clear. Butterbean is alive and well and in use among a bunch of the good people I know. Genuinely, dearly so.
I’m making anagrams now, before bed, usually—already in bed, in fact, sleepy, which is possible only with such an agreeable set of letters. I’ll have to move to more attentive times of day soon, parse out the repetitions, parcel out the lot by parts of speech. But for now I fall asleep with a’s and e’s, their cheer and possibility, their magenta and bright blue, in my head.
And soon, butterbeans, a new endearment, one more at least.
I have avoided including words in the endearments that give the final endearment away—so, no lovely in my little love. If such a word appears in an anagram, though, that seems fine. No surprise is lost.
tilt me lovely
I anagrammed my dearest dear back in 2012; after nearly three years of incubation, it’s a poem as of today. It’s one of several endearments I’ve made that come from oldtime Appalachian tunes—in this case, unmistakably, from the Tommy Jarrell song “As Time Draws Near.”
Finishing the poem made me want to set down some of the other endearments that have their sources in oldtime music. I didn’t plan on drawing from those tunes for this project, exactly, and of course some endearments show up lots of places. But oldtime informs another series of poems I’ve been working on for years, and I love to play it, and all this probably caused certain endearments to tug on my memory more. A little list:
my dearest dear: “As Time Draws Near,” Tommy Jarrell (Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 3, County LP 757, 1978)
my darling: “Your Long Journey,” Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson (The Watson Family, Folkways FA 2366, 1963)
turtle dove: “My Pretty Crowing Chicken,” Frank Proffitt (High Atmosphere, Rounder 0028, 1974), the last stanza of which is:
My own true love, my sweet turtle dove,
When shall I see you again?
When the moon and the stars enter into yonders green
And the sky shall shed no more rain, rain, rain,
And the sky shall shed no more rain.
Anagramming precious, a word rich in vowels and thus rich, I have begun noticing almost-possible words: if only I had one more c, I could have succor; if an h, ichor. If only an n, so many words—prune, coin. Despite the addition of repeated or new letters, these words keep the virtue, which a set of bona fide anagrammed words has, of consistent color or flavor. They are tangential to the project; I offer them here in case anyone is in need, for instance, of matchy-matchy repetends for a sestina.
osprey (I knew there was a bird in there—)
In which I ask myself what color each letter is, in order of the alphabet and with a side excursion into musical notes
Letters have had colors for me for a long time. When I’m reading, they recede and the meaning of the words takes up most of the room. But when I’m thinking of words or letters specifically, the colors float there. Some are less vivid than others. Sometimes to see a letter’s color I need to see it next to other letters. Some change depending on what other letters they’re next to.
A result of this synesthesia is that certain of the endearments have colors. The originating word, in my mind, has a palette that infuses, transforms, as it appears in the words that make the poem. Thus “dreamboat” is grass green (d), pinky red (a), bright blue (e), all dulled down a bit by the dark black-brown of the r and the muddy purple of the m. “Sweetheart” has a similar blue-red thing going, deepened by the blue of the w and cheered by the vague but warm-colored h.
Where do these colors come from? I think the A comes from a Fisher-Price magnet alphabet that we had on our fridge when I was growing up. That bright pinky red. But of the others’ provenance I am less sure, because that alphabet does not continue to match up. Oliver Sacks could probably tell me.
Below, a record of what colors the letters have in my mind as of this September. The problem being, of course, that saying one version of a thing can make it more true. Thus I intend to avoid rereading this record. I like shift.
How is it mean? asked J.
“Fail, pal of mine”? I said. Isn’t it mean to tell someone to fail?
I don’t think so, said J. I wouldn’t think that was a bad thing to tell a friend. Failure isn’t always bad.
I could see his point. The gleeful aspect of the lines just preceding that last line (“fie, foe”), and also the frame of mind I was in when I wrote, it had pushed it that way for me. (Again that maker’s narrative, which must be relinquished when the poem is done. All right, I relinquish it.)
About a year ago, I had a change of thinking in my excellent modern-dance class, taught by the excellent S. I had had this problem for a while: if things got past a certain threshold of difficulty and I was having trouble getting it, my mind would spiral into something like despair. It took a real mental effort to flip back up into the present moment, to move, to try. I had gotten better at this, and it happened less often.
One day in class, I had had such a moment. I wasn’t showing it, of course. I was working hard and concentrating; only the occasional frustrated shake of my head after trying a phrase betrayed my distress. I pulled out of it with difficulty, tried to enjoy the end of class and, as S. often says toward the end, to just dance, do it like you’re dancing and don’t worry about how it looks. As we were ending for the day, she said to the class, “You’ve worked really hard.” And in my mind a shift occurred. The hard work is the point, I realized. Failure is the point—when it’s done with an awareness, when you’re noticing what is happening, that information can help you get where you want to go. Closing my eyes and throwing myself at the movement, too afraid to watch and just hoping things will go right, I miss that information.
This may sound obvious. And I had read studies on attitudes toward learning, about which more below. But I had not felt this difference in my body and mind until then. The realization transformed the hard work I had been doing from a sometimes-terrifying effort to a source of pleasure.
Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has studied the ways we frame success. Her work, a lot of it focused on young women and mathematics, suggests that when we hear that our success is a result of inherent goodness, or talent, we are more likely to give up when we mess up. Makes sense—if you do good because you are good, and then later you do badly, it must be because you are bad. But if we learn and feel that success is the result of hard work and that skills can be improved with practice, we’re more likely to persevere when things get harder.
If you, like me, were sent to gifted-and-talented class in school, you may have ended up with the short end of this stick. When I first read about Dweck’s studies, I felt really hopeful—they may change education practices, and they have definitely changed my thinking about my own efforts.
Nonetheless, it took me until that dance class to really know it. (It also took a lot of prior hard work, and the good space that S. and my fellow students and I created in the class, to make room for that awareness, and maybe also it took reading a lot of studies about learning, so the ideas were there in my mind, waiting to take hold.)
People say “good job” a lot. Sometimes, if they are in the know, they say, “You’re working hard.” But people rarely instruct you directly to fail, as the poem does. They say, “do x,” knowing the effort might not work out. But not “fail.” I have said it. And now, after the fact, I hear the glee in it not as a cackling triumph over a frenemy but as a playful acknowledgment: of how the little chaos that a failure makes, if it’s paid attention to, can help one get more clarity, more precision, more freedom.
Fail, pal of mine.
Dweck, Carol S., “Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk” [pdf]. 2006. In S. J. Ceci & W. Williams (eds.), Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Associaiton.
A Chronicle of Higher Education article exploring Dweck’s theories, including some critique of them
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.
In the land of science, a problem that comes up is that negative results are (people suspect, anyway) underreported. So, say, if someone shows a correlation between two things, their study might have better chances of getting published, and of getting talked about, than if they did a study and found no correlation. The lack of correlation is valuable information, but it’s maybe less exciting.
I was talking with L at the Fun-A-Day NC show about choosing what to exhibit. If I did a project, said L, I would want to pick the best things and show them, not show every day’s thing. That makes sense, I said. (And, in fact, that is what I did this time.) But there was also something nice about K’s every-day drawings of portraits on coffee receipts, and similarly about A’s comic for each day of the month showing and telling about some thing that happened that day. It’s a matter of what you’re privileging, I guess—quality of the art, or the process of making the art. The process aspect is being made into lots of books lately. My year of x. A month in y. And I am tempted by it also. This is another way of saying, I’m going to report all of my results.
There are ways in which this project is scientific: I have crafted a set of rules that will let me test some things. There are ways in which it is not: The end results, although some generalities will become evident over time, aren’t testing a new hypothesis. They prove:
—that words are made of letters, which make other words;
—that words are really interesting;
—that vowels, in particular, do interesting things in combination with one another.
But none of these things needed proving—and this is where the project is more like art: even if those ideas are as solidly acknowledged as the theory of evolution, and perhaps because they are, it seems useful and fun to play with what they are talking about. (You could argue that “words are really interesting” is not a proven truth, sure, but if “interesting” is substituted with “complex,” or “intricate,” or similar, it becomes less arguable.) Anyway, the point of each poem is not to test what might be a universal, it is to play with particulars and, because of some certain already-established universals such as the pleasingness of vowels, to enjoy it. —And because of other universals such as the diversity of words and meanings in English, to be surprised by it, from time to time.
It would be more scientific to include the “failures”—the words that do not make any or enough words to make a useful poem—along with the “successes.” It would be more scientific to call them all “results” and not taint these results with ideas of predetermination. I do hope when I begin with a word to find other good words in it. I also hope, though, to know it better—and sometimes knowing it better just means knowing the limits to which it can go. Maybe a list of these non-anagramming words would be relevant. But what belongs on that list and what doesn’t?
Take bobo. E said, I thought about sending you endearments, but all the ones I like have just one or two letters, and I thought, that’s no good. Thankfully, she sent it anyway. It has the feeling, to me, of bumping shoulders with someone, jostling them in that friendly way. And when E calls Tisko (the cat with whom I live) Bobo, I can hear the sweetness she lends the word. To know this word is an endearment is good. Scientifically speaking, to see what happens is good.
And what happens with “bobo” is—well—likely something like a one-line poem. Or maybe two—which leads me to wonder about one of the parameters I hadn’t had the need to set explicitly before. Is O, bobo! complete? Or should a complete one of these poems use at least all the letters of the endearment in the rest of itself? That is, should it contain at least one complete anagram of itself? I haven’t made up my mind.