Help I’m Concise

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The song, “Help I’m Alive” by Metric is a piece of minimalist genius.

At first glance, it seems simply sparse, in keeping with the moment of panic we feel before stepping on stage. “If I tremble, they’re gonna eat me alive. If I stumble, they’re gonna eat me alive.” So few words to capture so much terror.

“Can’t you hear my heart beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer.” That repetition itself is a pulse, with a sparsity casting me back to the breathless “animal in a cage” inability to think beyond the moment before the mike goes live.

But here are the words of minimalist lyrical genius that have been flowing around my brain cavity since first hearing the song: “Hard to be soft, tough to be tender.”

I’m a poet by nature. (Game design is formalist poetry.) And I find myself stunned at the perfection of those eight words. Where do I start?

First, each phrase takes two utterly contradictory words and melds them into a singular truth. That accomplishment alone fills me with wonder. Especially given that they’re simple one-syllable words.

One-syllable except for the last, intentional, two-syllable word. Listen to the rhythm of the line, the one-syllable “soft” forcing a caesura that makes you hear each phrase as independent. Then the two-syllable “tender” leading rhythmically to the next line.

And grammatically the phrases are identical. An open oyster shell.

Beyond all that, there’s the poetic consonance and assonance of those four adjectives. “Soft” and “tough” are virtually mirror images.

Just, wow.

Until today, I’d been so captivated by that line that I missed how structurally parallel the next one is: “Come take / my pulse, / the pace / is on a runaway train.” Those pulsing iambs. The one-vowel-sound difference between “pulse” and “pace.” The fluidity of the last phrase with its trio of “n’s.’

This is minimalism. A glass of water so clear you notice neither glass nor water in the act of drinking.

This is the difference between brevity and concision. The division between short and art.

And it’s why I so hate the catchall phrase, “rules lite,” in game design.

Waiting in the Dentist’s Chair . . .

Waiting in the Dentist’s Chair,
Watching the Slide Show

The girl had a pixie’s face
Sparkling blue eyes
A fairy dusting of freckles
And a big, gap-toothed grin
Like a row of druidic standing stones

I could have kissed her

That was “before”

“After” showed the same face, same pose, same grin

The freckles seemed faded
And the eyes looked older
The only sparkle was
From the perfectly manufactured smile

I would have missed her

In any crowd
On any street
In America

Paris

It was not the season for tourism. We arrived in Paris by overnight train from Barcelona, entering the City of Lights via the shabby Gare de Paris-Austerlitz. Mounds of pigeon feathers lined the halls like drifts of gray snow burying stained paper cups and sandwich wrappers. My companion was ill, and he spoke no French, so at the Buffet de la Gare I must make do for us both. The middle-aged waiter had no patience for foreigners. The menu bore only six items: I ordered deux croque-monsieur et deux café; the prix service was fixed at fifteen percent. Afterward we walked to our hotel, wheeling our luggage along the damp streets, through patches of fallen leaves. The elevator cage was out of service. We carried our bags up two flights of cracked marble steps to a small room, where one must sit on the bed for the other to enter the toilet. We were in Paris.

—Lester Smith, 13 November 2008

Adam

Adam

I’m startled to awake—at my gray age,
and listless from the labors of my years—
unsettled by a dream, in youthful tears
for an old love, the one who slipped away,
while she who sleeps beside me holds me here
in solace of the history we share.

Sleep deeply, Eve. I’ll marvel while I may
the grip of ardent passion I had feared
forgotten. And imagine (if I dare),
that somewhere, Lilith also lies awake.

—Lester Smith