Two falls ago the Endearments made a trip to Durham, NC, for the SAMLA conference, where I read as part of a panel on ekphrastic work chaired by the excellent Chelsea Rathburn. I talked about visual strategies for composition and presentation of poems, and about some submissions venues for that sort of work. But a more basic question floats to the front of the queue: Can a word be considered a work of art, a subject for ekphrasis?
A recent call for one-word poems, from REAEDR at New Lights Press, has me thinking about this again. It is here and worth having a look at: newlightspress.com/reaedr/
In a sense each of the Endearments is in fact an ekphrastic on a particular word—one that, because of its cultural context and the patterns of its use, signifies more and differently than some other kinds of words. Maybe a term of endearment is a work of commonly owned art—like a ballad, just shorter. And, possibly, more directed—that is, its medium being speech or the written word, its audience appears when it is sent to someone through the air, in sound waves, or via the page. Dearest. Bumble bee. Turtle. Little Cupid-arrows of direct address.
Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest this. And one could argue that the intentionally created one-word poem is more work-of-art than the one-word (or few-words) poem arising out of folk tradition. (The classic example from Aram Saroyan is certainly, famously, more costly. And there are class implications, very different ones, around both the value of art and the value of regional speech.)
But the delight is the same, I think. The delight in first finding a term of endearment that is perfect for a particular someone may extend to give that term life as an endearment proper—not just nickname but legitimate word. Wordwork. Artwork?
Saying yes to the endearment as art may seem more natural for people with synesthesia. When I anagram an endearment, I’m seeing the colors of each letter rearrange in relation to one another: it’s a lengthening, an extending, of the color-field of the word. That’s along with, of course, the sounds of the letters, and not to mention the field of cultural implications that come with their collective meaning. The term has more than enough texture, color, material for ekphrasis. And even when I don’t pay a lot of attention to the colors, each poem made from a term of endearment is a reflection and an extension of the word from which it begins—and with which it ends.
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
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.
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.
Any one of these endearments that has the letter u in it, I said to A recently, is gonna be kind of dirty. And this is true. The letter u ends up in lots of words that can cause a sweet little poem to take a piratical turn. Or sinister, maybe, or just gloomy. In the case of sugar plum, for instance, pus, glum, slump.
And then there’s surl, the only semi-made-up word I have allowed myself to use thus far. It came up in the anagram surl gap um, if I am remembering correctly, or maybe it was surl map ug (is ug a word? I can’t remember. But it sure is in the pirate camp).
In my mind, it was a short hop from surly to surl, which seemed like a more accurate way to say surliness. More like stuff, like a substance, than a quality. And this seemed useful. My Webster’s Collegiate does not have an entry for it. I had never had occasion to look up surly before, though, and this was surprising: its root is sir, as in sirly. Oh, that old i/u connection, so weird, so counterintuitive—except when we think of certain words. Which brings us back to dirty—it’s that u quality that makes it work so well as a word, and I think it’s why dirty came to my mind to describe the aspect a u can lend to an endearment. Lucky sugar plum also has an a in it to brighten it up, to open it.
Also: my mother used to call me “sugar plum.”