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.

Firefly Eyes: Voice and Subtext

Our piece for this week is Firefly Eyes by Peter Ripple, which is a short story from Periphery 50. This piece can be found in Periphery’s online archives.

One of my biggest pet peeves is authors giving their child characters adult voices. While it’s true that some children have excellent vocabularies,  an eight-year-old narrator using words like “effervescent” will immediately destroy my suspension of disbelief in a story. It’s simply too unrealistic for me to cope with—plus, as a huge fan of middle grade literature, it grates on my nerves.

Fortunately, Firefly Eyes presents us with a young narrator who has a thoroughly childlike voice. This short story follows Liam, a boy who is “younger than most princesses,” as he deals with his mother’s drug addiction, his father’s violent tendencies, and his father’s death—all within a few brief hours. Yet even as the story forces Liam to confront “adult” problems, it ensures that he maintains a childlike voice. For example, when Liam’s father curses at his mother, Liam mis-perceives the word as “forking.” Additionally, whereas a narrator with an adult voice might use various words to describe their emotions in a similar scenario, Liam repeatedly uses the words “angry,” “sad,” and “scared.” This simplistic description of emotions solidifies the idea that Liam is a young child—even though the story itself was written by an adult.

In addition to making the story more immersive, this deliberate use of a childlike voice offers plenty of opportunities for subtext, which adds intrigue and suspense to the story. Consider, for example, the following passage:

“’Now write the letters I tell you, just like how we…used to,’ she said. She started to breathe real fast and it sounded like a fan that blew air that was real cold. She kept looking at me and then at the door and then at me again.

‘Ok,’ I said and then I took the cap off the pen and I kneeled on the ground so I could use the table by her bed.

‘P, for puppy. A, for apple. I…errr…for igloo. N, for Nintendo. T, for tail. Another T…errr…H, for hamburger. I, for igloo. Two Ns, for Nintendo. E, for elephant. R, for red,” she said to me.

I wrote down the letters as good as I ever have and I held them up to Mom and I said, ‘look how good they are!’

She said, ‘good. That’s good,’ and then she breathed fast again.  

‘Now you go to the shed and bring this bookmark with you. You find the can that has this on it, ok?’ she said.”

Because Liam cannot spell, he has no idea that his mother is asking him to bring her paint thinner (presumably to drink). But as readers, we know exactly what is going on, and must therefore watch in horror as the oblivious Liam brings his mother poison, knowing that nothing we say or do can change the characters’ actions. Thus, through the use of a childish voice and perspective, Firefly Eyes draws us in and challenges us to keep reading.

All too often, I’ve heard people dismiss children’s stories, claiming that they’re irrelevant to “great modern literature.” However, as Firefly Eyes demonstrates, a well-executed childlike voice can add a lot to even an “adult” story. So, if you’ve got a young character who you’ve been keeping on your story’s sidelines, maybe it’s time to let their perspective shine.

Love, Oppy: The Crossroads Between Poetry and Science

Our piece for this week is Love, Oppy by Allison Kaefring, which is a poem from Periphery 57. This piece can be found both under the Story of the Week tab and in Periphery’s online archives.

Poetry and science are about as different as two disciplines can be.  Whereas science focuses on the “what” and “how” of life, poetry is more interested in the “why.” Additionally, while scientific authors typically use direct, matter-of-fact language, poets often play with more artistic, figurative language. As such, it might seem as though there is very little– if any–overlap between the two fields. However, some works manage to operate in the crossroads between the two disciplines, and Love, Oppy, is one of them.

 Love, Oppy, tells the story of the Opportunity rover’s final days on Mars.  More specifically, this poem goes beyond the statistics of the Opportunity’s situation and adds depth, meaning, and—as the title suggests—love to the robot’s story. The piece uses several tools to accomplish this, the most effective of which is personifying Opportunity and making the robot the narrator of its own story.

Personification, or the practice of giving human qualities to non-human items and organisms, is an extremely popular literary tool that has been used in countless works. Much of personification’s appeal comes from the fact that it can make the unknown, knowable, and the emotionless, emotional. In this instance, it allows Opportunity—a piece of machinery that few of us have had the chance to know and even fewer of us have had the reason to love—to tell its own death story. By doing so, it generates sympathy within us for a little robot that “hasn’t seen a person in a decade and a half.” This sympathy, in turn, inspires us to learn more about Opportunity, other machines like it, and the programs that fund such creations.

Poems such as Love, Oppy, therefore, demonstrate the heart that lies behind scientific discovery and allow us to become more emotionally connected with the field. However, the relationship between poetry and science is far from one-sided; science also brings something to the mix. On the most basic level, it provides poets with new and interesting topics to write about—after all, no one would have been able to tell the story of Oppy if NASA didn’t exist! On a deeper level, science also provides poets with new, more specific words that they can use to describe the world around them. And because poetry relies heavily on specificity and diction, science thus plays a key role in the expansion and improvement of poetry.                

Overall, poetry and science are not quite as disparate as you think—and neither are the rest of life’s fields of study. Therefore, as you continue your work in your discipline of choice, I urge you to look for the connections that tie it to the world at large. Who knows what you might find?

Submit Your Art by March 23rd!

In honor of the upcoming Spring Art Submission Deadline, I am going to forego the Story of the Week this week in favor of celebrating the “art” side of the Periphery Art and Literary Journal. Throughout its fifty-eight years existence, Periphery has received hundreds of unique, beautiful, and thought-provoking art and photography submissions. And because a picture is worth a thousand words, I would like to share with you a few of my favorites:

Double Monument by Tim Dendy, Periphery 57
Growth by Rachel Crown, Periphery 47
Fire by Autumn Meyer, Periphery 55
Guardian Angel by Juliette Jarabek, Periphery 56

If you want your art to join the likes of these stunning pieces, be sure to submit it to Periphery 58 by Tuesday, March 23rd!

The One Who Holds the Moon: Subverting Cliche Through Narrative Structure

Our piece for this week is The One Who Holds the Moon by Bailee Cofer, which is a short story from Periphery 55. This piece can be found both under the Story of the Week tab and in Periphery’s online archives.

There are millions of love stories out there—in fact, I reviewed one just two weeks ago! And I’m not just talking about romantic love stories either; love between family, between friends, and even between strangers comes up so often in the literary world that many modern stories are composed of nothing but recycled platitudes about love. Yet Periphery isn’t in the habit of publishing platitudes, and The One Who Holds the Moon is not exempt from this rule. This short story from Periphery 55 takes the idea of familial love between a father and a daughter and explores it in a way that feels fresh and unique.

                There are several tricks that the author, Bailee Cofer, uses to accomplish this, but I’d like to talk about one in particular: structure. The beginning of this piece starts us off slow, with a single character and a cluster of sensory details. Lines such as “she picks her way across the rocky outcropping and squats behind a shrub” situate us with the main character in her current moment and prep us for what’s supposed to come next—a more thorough explanation of who she is, where she’s camping, and why.

                Only, that’s not what we get. Instead, we’re taken into the character’s past, where we explore the idea of the father-daughter bond through the lens of a grieving classmate. This segment shows us a little about the main character’s relationship with her own father, who is formally introduced when we bounce back to the “present” in the next paragraph. The story continues to shift between the past and the present until the ending, where we witness the only bit of dialogue between the main character and her father:

                Her father puts her to bed and sings her songs before she sleeps. Each time he finishes singing and stands to leave, he tells her goodnight and that he loves her. She says she loves him back, and then she says it again, and again, and again. If she accidentally says something else before he leaves her room, she panics and shouts.

DAD!

What?

I love you.

                Ostensibly, the italics and past-tense language here suggest that this conversation took place in the character’s past. Yet because the dialogue is separated from the rest of the paragraph, it’s possible that the conversation belongs to the character’s present as well. Regardless, by ending with this sweet, simple conversation, the piece leaves us with a concept of love that doesn’t feel cheesy or forced.

                By beginning with the character’s present reality but repeatedly returning to her past, The One Who Holds the Moon allows for a subtle exploration of how father-daughter love can grow and develop. Furthermore, by ending with a short, direct conversation between the character and her father, the piece leaves us with a concrete display of love that feels more authentic than a description, explanation or cliché might. Altogether, this piece demonstrates the power of structural choices to add new depth to common topics—not to mention the power of familial love to shape the heart.