Words about Words about Words

I’ve long enjoyed what are referred to as “meta” art forms: works that take their very medium as their subject. So, for instance, there’s fiction about fiction (say, Borges’s stories) painting about painting (like Jackson Pollock’s drip-action canvasses), film about film (Fellini’s 8 1/2 comes first to mind). And in poetry, there’s the sub-genre known as ars poetica: poems about the art of poetry. The most well-known example is Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica,” with its repeated line-opening of “A poem should be…,” then ending with the most famous articulation of ars poetica: “A poem should not mean / But be.”

But in John Pleimann’s new poetry collection Come Shivering to Collect (Slant Books), he does something different and, to me, new and intriguing: he includes a group of poems that are about words themselves. So they’re words about words.

This doesn’t mean, though, that they’re not also about “life.” The very first poem in the volume, “Syllabic,” focuses on how the sounds of words interact with their meanings.

“Syllabic” begins with alliterated “s”s that set us up for the poem’s key (invented) word:

As if sound were sense enough,
my tongue today insisted succulate
a word.

Of course, “succulate” is not a word…but to the speaker it sounds as if it should be. The stanza continues:

a word. It was a mouth meaning,
juice of succubus and succulent
a word between, a word my tongue
lay down with in the dark.

A “mouth meaning”: the alliteration reinforces the sense that the feel of “succulate” in his mouth gives it meaning…a meaning which derives from dual etymologies. “Succulent” comes from the Latin for “juice”; “succubus” from the Latin for “lie under.” But the meaning of succubus as a female demon who has sex with sleeping men also comes into play: it’s perhaps she who the speaker “lay down with in the dark.” And it’s likely she, along with the word “succulate” itself, that the speaker refers to at the start of the next stanza:

I nippled it, rubbed it against suckle,
let it nurse me…

So, working the word with his tongue has brought him to “suckle,” with its alliterative “nippled” and “nurse.” But then comes the real-life event that has made “nursing” necessary:

let it nurse me after my wife explained
with rhetorical precision the marriage
was gone. Succulate stayed moist.

Here at the literal center of the poem (with seven lines above and below) is the devastation of the poet’s broken marriage. In the wake of this, we now realize, he needs “succulate” to soothe him, nurse him. Then comes the final stanza:

Anymore, the words that speak for me,
are close but closed to reason, the nano-
syllabic, the ones only I can hear
as in succulate and its overtones:
you suck, you suck too late,
too late, sucker.

After the play with “close” (nearby) but “closed” (shut), “succulate and its overtones” return—but with increasing grimness. The “suck” of succulate could be the sucking of the nipple, the soothing nursing. But “suck too late” (a variant of succulate) sounds a bit dismal, and the final “sucker”—which the speaker labels himself—is truly a downer.

All in all, “Syllabic” is a painful poem, because of the lost marriage at the poem’s core. But Pleimann’s wordplay gives him—and us readers—such pleasure that the central pain seems mitigated.

Words continue as a subject in several of the subsequent poems in this volume. The poem “There” has as its epigraph Wallace Stevens’ line Words are everything else in the world. The poem goes on to focus in a delightful way on words’ power:

He lays his finger
on what he sees
and says “There,”
as if the word will
carry him ashore…

Pleimann’s poem “The Bay” also plays with words’ power to act on reality. At first, this power is celebrated:

Tonight, I free
the gulls,

clip the word “gulls”
of wings.…

How can I say “bird”
or “bay” and not get wet?

Then wetness and water move, with “words,” to center stage:

Words have tongues,
shadows underwater

rising hard,
falling silent

to the sediment
of said…

“The sediment / of said”—what a perfect alliteration and internal rhyming, with “said” pulled by “sediment” into the non-word “sed.” And yet at the poem’s end, words’ independent life and liveliness must give way to reality:

as if to say as dumb
as dirt is best

when fish not word
nibbles the lip.

The poem “Taxonomy,” too, offers images for words’ interaction with reality. What fun to picture this image:

…a snowy egret rose
from the marsh and carried
my words through an aperture
into dusk.

And the fun continues into this mind-bending image:

…Shadows turn
inside out and there, a strand of your hair
on the hallway floor like some cursive letter
from a language that’s trying to learn me.

Finally, in the poem “Plowman’s Prayer,” the speaker prays: “Let me be a man turning words / back to life.” Which is what the previous poems have been, in a sense, doing.

What shall we call the genre of these poems of Pleimann’s which are words about words? They’re not ars poetica, because not about poetry per se. How about verba de verbis?


Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.