Hearts in Our Hands: On Wordplay

Our piece for this week is Hearts in Our Hands by Alexis Pearson, which is a poem from Periphery 56. This piece can be found both under the Story of the Week tab and in Periphery’s online archives.

Aside from certain flash fiction pieces, poems are the shortest literary works. As such, diction is an incredibly important tool for poets to master—when you only have a few stanzas to share your message, it’s essential to use the right words for the job. Our featured piece for this week, Hearts in Our Hands by Alexis Pearson, is an excellent example of how well-chosen words can amplify and twist the meanings within a poem.

First of all, the title itself has two separate meanings, both of which relate directly to the rest of the poem. Typically, “holding someone’s heart in your hand” is used as a metaphor for being the recipient of someone’s undying love.  Therefore, the poem’s title hints at the unspoken—and likely unrequited—love that the narrator holds towards their card-playing partner. Even if she doesn’t know it, she holds the narrator’s heart in her hands. Furthermore,  because “hearts” is a suit of cards, this title also refers to the cards that the narrator and their friend physically hold in their hands. Thus, the wording of the poem’s title establishes the intertwinement of cards, love, and hidden meaning that characterizes the rest of the piece.

Unsurprisingly, the body of the poem is also rife with puns and plays on words. Perhaps my favorite instance of clever word choice comes from the first five lines:

“We play cards in the dark naked

and call it love making,

well I call it love and you

call it Friday night and

they call it poker”

This section stands out to me because of the sheer amount of meaning place upon the term “love making.” There is, of course, the typical definition of lovemaking, which is introduced by the concept of the friends being naked together and is further highlighted by the inclusion of the term itself. However, the passage makes it clear that physical lovemaking is not happening—just metaphorical lovemaking, in the form of two people sharing an intimate activity.

Additionally, the third line splits the term into its two root words but only writes out the first—“love.” When a term in a poem is split like this, readers expect both halves to appear in different contexts than those surrounding the original term. By subverting this expectation and discussing “Friday night” instead of the idea of “making,” the poem causes us to associate the concepts with each other. Thus, we can gather that the narrator’s Friday night routine is responsible for “making” them fall in “love” with their friend. Physical lovemaking may not be occurring, but metaphorical lovemaking is, and it’s making the narrator fall further in love with their poker partner.

 Other examples of powerful wordplay in this piece include the usage of homophonic phrases (e.g. poker/poke her) and the narrator’s statement that the flush of hearts is “ironic, no?” Hearts in Our Hands is a very brief piece, but by taking advantage of words with multiple meanings, it manages to convey a great deal of complexity and emotion. Therefore, this poem shows that good diction is a vital tool for both poets and writers in general.

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