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I am a very occasional poet. The urge, the wisp of an idea, for a poem wafts by once every three years, and it's hit or miss whether I bother to write it down. Life is usually too busy.
I love poems, love the hard, tight punch of them, how they can crack you wide open with a single line. I love words, so I love the way poetry can make them clang together and still sing.
Writing poems, on the other hand, baffles me. I can sense when they are perfect, when the lines have come together faultlessly, but I rarely understand how to get there: sort of like a Rubik's Cube.
Last fall, I quit the job I'd had for 14 years and figured I would take a year to do some of the things I've never had time to do properly: brush up on my French, write some poetry, solve the Rubik's Cube. They're not so different, really, especially the poems and the puzzle. Both demand concentration and a deep affection for echoes and symmetry. I wondered: If you took a perfect poem and scrambled up the words, would you still have poetry?
I bought a Rubik's Cube for 11 bucks at Toys "R" Us and wrote six nine-word couplets on each face of the cube. (There may be no other way to find poetry at a Toys "R" Us).
The cube came solved, so each couplet appeared on a completed face of the cube, one on red, one on blue, etc. I started telling people about my Rubik's poem, and of course they wanted to try it out. Just watching my friends twist and swivel my Rubik's poem made me happy, but also anxious. How hard would it be to solve my Rubik's poem again? Would it matter? What if my Rubik's poem was a metaphor for the plunge I had taken into joblessness – what if, no matter what new and exciting poems the future held, I just wanted the old one back?
I spent 24 hours puttering in vain with my newly muddled poem before I had to pack my bags for France. I had decided to take language classes in Paris so as to postpone my hunt for work.
"You're bringing that?" my husband, Tyler, said when he saw the Rubik's poem going into my hand luggage.
I had already announced that I'd nixed a pair of dress shoes and a proper coat from my checked baggage. Now, my husband was clearly blanching at the image of me ensconced at an outdoor table at Les Deux Magots in my grubby sneakers and Gore-Tex jacket, trying to solve my Rubik's poem.
"With this," I said, and showed him the six-page "Solve the Rubik's Cube" manual I had printed off the Internet. He shook his head.
I pulled the cube out on the first flight, from Kelowna to Vancouver.
"I haven't seen one of those in ages!" the flight attendant exclaimed.
Tyler, next to me, tried to sink a bit deeper into his seat.
"With words!" she said. "That looks hard."
"They're poems," I said, hoping to enhance Tyler's mortification. "But I'm actually just trying to solve the colours."
"I would find the words distracting," she said.
This is always true.
"You're not exactly solving it yourself if you're using the instruction booklet," Tyler murmured.
I was trying to hold the Rubik's manual as unobtrusively as possible, tucking it partly under my seatbelt while I glowered at the cube and tried to look intelligent.
"Yes I am," I told him.
It hadn't occurred to me (here's a clue as to why I had never solved the cube as a child) that printing off the solution manual in black and white would be of scant help for a puzzle based on six different colours. So it was still extremely challenging.
"I used to be able to do that thing in two minutes," Tyler said, then went back to pretending we were not travelling together.
By the time we had crossed the Atlantic I'd only completed the white face and matched the upper edges to the centre pieces before falling asleep.
"You're doing that here?" Tyler said when the Rubik's poem came out again in bustling Heathrow airport. His tone sounded as if I'd started waxing my legs at our boarding gate.
"I'm solving the middle layer," I told him crossly. Jet lag is no help for puzzles or poetry.
On our last hop, from London to Paris, I solved my Rubik's poem. I wanted to share the moment with someone, but Tyler had been seated four rows behind me. Giddy, I held the completed cube up in the air and waved it around, trying to get a laugh or applause out of my husband. But when I turned around to look, beaming, he had his eye mask on and was sleeping, or – more likely – feigning sleep.
The strange thing is that while I've got my poems back, they are not completely perfect. In some cases my centre squares are sideways or upside down. I find this comforting. It's as if my Rubik's poem is trying to tell me that even if I end up in a job that looks and feels the same, there will still be reminders of what it took to get there. Also, even when you get a poem perfectly right, there is always room for the unexpected.
Shelley Wood lives in Kelowna, B.C.