On Anagrams – Luke Kennard exposes the building blocks behind 31 biblical poems

Blog / james

I’m fairly useless at cryptic crosswords. I tried to learn once, but solving half a puzzle tended to take an entire Sunday. My uncle (to whom the book is dedicated) could solve them while driving a car, his passengers taking turns to read the clues out loud, the grid existing solely in his head. My […]

I’m fairly useless at cryptic crosswords. I tried to learn once, but solving half a puzzle tended to take an entire Sunday. My uncle (to whom the book is dedicated) could solve them while driving a car, his passengers taking turns to read the clues out loud, the grid existing solely in his head. My wife’s great uncle was Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree), the legendary Guardian crossword setter. That obsession with the whole dance of language and meaning has been present in my life for a while, even if I’m not really equal to the task.

There are plenty of anagrams in the Hebrew Old Testament. I’m reliably informed that “And Noah found grace,” (Gen. vi. 8 is an anagram of “He took away my birthright, and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” (ibid. xxvii. 36). “A garland instead of ashes,” (Is. lxi. 3) is a three-way anagram of  “Let all my enemies return and be ashamed suddenly,” (Ps. vi. 11) and “And his mother called his name Jabez, saying, Because I bare him with sorrow,” (I Chron. iv. 9). As I researched the project I learned that anagrams are central to Talmudic and Midrashic literature as a system of Biblical interpretation known as inversion. I’ve only scratched the surface of the cabalistic tradition and the Arabic poets who inspired it, and it’ll probably stay that way. There are lots of amulets and things. I think I need to move on.

In selecting a passage from Cain’s story, I wanted to focus on the moment the ground itself is cursed, the idea that nothing more will grow out of it without strenuous effort. That felt apt. It felt like a little patch of cursed ground to tend and rake over and try to grow something out of. Length of the source material is a factor: if it’s too short there’s not so much you can do with it – a single verse would feel like lines rather than whole poems. On the other hand if the passage is too long, it’s not that impressive a feat to make a perfect anagram out of it. You’re probably dealing with every letter of the alphabet in fairly normal frequency. So there’s not enough tension; in any process or form, you want to feel the lead pull most of the time. 200-400 characters is about right, I think. The process (you use a kind of Excel spreadsheet to keep track of letters used, percentage complete, as well as a big fat dictionary and thesaurus) is addictive. It’s a form of collaboration with the original, at times maddening (when you get 76% of the way through and realise you still have 23 Hs to use up), at times joyful and almost frightening when something unexpectedly falls into place. There was a week where I just got fixated on the Archangel Metatron. I probably only ended up using about 2% of that research.

I had a skeleton of a story outline I wanted to tell: a kind of flat-share comedy with three lead characters who would embark on a journey and end up completely displaced. I think if you read the 31 anagrams in sequence without the notes it would be fairly opaque. Maybe completely opaque. I’m losing sleep over that at the moment, to be honest. The idea to use the notes, the midrash to the midrash, as a kind of behind-the-scenes episode review was my work-around. I’m obsessed with TV shows, like David Lynch’s half realised projects, all the better for their incompletion, so it was an opportunity to do something with that.

It’s the central sequence of poems in the collection, but I worked hard to create little eddies of meaning, sparks that jump across synapses of the three sections, between the more personal and narrative stuff. Like with any piece of writing you get kind of over-invested in it after a while and just hope to God it means something to other people too.

Cain by Luke Kennard is out now. Get yours in our online store.

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