After Sarah Messer

The first writer to talk extensively with me about literary constraints, particularly those derived of the French OuLiPo movement, was the exquisite poet Sarah Messer. Before she left academia to become a cheese maker in Ann Arbor, Sarah was my professor. And mentor. And dear, dear friend.

In the past week, I've had two groups of students work with lipograms. First in a Master Class for the Southern Humanities Review in Alabama, and then with my undergraduates back home in North Carolina. I wish it were possible to present you with the results from that class in Auburn, especially since the only text I had with me was my novella (which, torn up, gave everyone in the room something to recast), and especially because so many of their lipograms were startlingly beautiful--far more interesting and lyric than my original sentences.

What I do happily have, however, is the result of a recent exercise wherein a group of brilliant undergraduates divvied up the lines of Sarah's "Prayer from a Mouse" and rewrote them under the constraints of a classic lipogram. Which is to say that students were to rewrite their assigned lines with language that did not include a single use of the letter 'e.'

Below is Sarah's "Prayer from a Mouse," which I happen to reread every week. Beside it is the version my students created on the fly. With great thanks to Sarah for teaching me, so I could teach them.


Prayer from a Mouse

Dimensionless One, can you hear me?
Me with the moon ears, caught
in ice branches?

Beneath the sky’s long house,
beneath the old snake tree,
I pray to see even a fragment
of you—
whiskers ticking

a deserted street,
a staircase leading
to the balcony
of your collarbone.

Beloved King of Stars, I cannot
contain my animal movements.

For you I stay like a mountain.
For you I stay like a straight pin.

But in the end, the body leaves us
its empty building.

Midnight petulant
as a root cellar. Wasps crawling
in sleeves. I sleep

with my tail over
my face, enflamed.

Oh Great Cataloguer
of Snow Leaves, I pray
that you may appear
and carry every piece
of my fur in your hands.
Worship from a Timid, Gray Thing

You of Unworldly Body, can this all find you?
I with small, round radars, caught
in cracking limbs?

A cloudy roof on top,
and a winding poison plant,
I pray if to look upon only parts
of you—
fur ticking

a lost highway,
a stairway guiding
us to a balcony
of your collar’s cliffs.

Darling King of Stars, I cannot
contain my animal actions.

For you I, as a mountain.
For you I, as a straight pin.

But in finishing, our body gifts us
its worn out building.

Midnight childish
as a root in ground. Wasps crawling
in hulls. I nap

with my tail masking
my shy snout, burning.

Oh Amazing God
of Snow Buds, I pray
that you may abound
and carry all locks
of my fur in your hands.