From “aa” to “zz,” a compendium of curious words.
Scrabble enthusiast Merritt, songwriter and singer in the Magnetic Fields, had trouble remembering all the two-letter words so useful for the game. Making up rhymes helped, and before long, he had written poems for the 101 two-letter words allowed in the Scrabble dictionary. Illustrated by longtime New Yorker cartoonist Chast (Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir, 2014, etc.), Merritt’s literary debut is sly, silly and playfully absurd. Even a common word like “is” inspires Merritt to flights of poetic fancy: “ ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t / My Baby’; sold a million, / and not by being played at any / debutante’s cotillion.” For the esoteric word “os,” Chast’s rendering of an animated landscape accompanies this ditty: “Os: a spine of gravel dropped / by long-gone giggly glaciers / playing in their sandbox, leaving / scribbles and erasures.” Merritt’s Scrabble dictionary apparently includes cockney (“Oi,” meaning “hey there”), Scottish (“Ae” means one, “Bo” means friend), Egyptian (“ba” represents the soul), archaic spelling variations (“wo” for woe) and slang abbreviations (“bi” for bisexual). Merritt sometimes reaches for the unexpected meaning of a word: The common verb “go” becomes, instead, a noun: “Go: a subtle game of skill, / with stones of black and white. / One game can go on until / the middle of the night.” Chast aptly captures the mood of the rhymes with her characteristic unkempt, harried and often bewildered characters, both human and animal. For “Id: the source of primal drives,” her bug-eyed green monster is appropriately lustful; her rendering of Santa Claus (“ ‘Ho, ho, ho’ says old Saint Nick”) makes him look a bit debauched.
Any reader’s vocabulary is likely to grow after reading Merritt’s quirky wordplay, but edification is not the point; fun is, and Merritt and Chast deliver just that.