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.