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Palindromes: The Literary and Psycho-Mental Art


Puns can also be read as short, hypnotic incantations.

Word games, like palindromes, anagrams, Spanish-language jitanjáfora, and refrains, are all verbal forms built nearly spontaneously by peoples over centuries. Popular poetry, they bear a marked stylistic feature that makes them forms of art of their own category. The case of the palindrome is interesting because it consists of words or phrases that can be read from left to right and likewise, right to left. The word indicates a similar movement, as it originates in the Greek, “palin dromein;” that is, “to go back.”

In the Spanish tradition, there are many well-known palindromes. A proverbial one presents a  an abbot feeding a fox: Dábale arroz a la zorra el abad. “He gave rice to the fox, the abbot.” Another presents a girl who washes and washes: Anita lava la tina. “Anita washes the tub.” The writer, José de la Colina, has collected some other examples of literary palindromes. These range from the hidden to the procrastinating (and back). Among them, Rubén Bonifaz Nuño’s  Atonal trazó Mozart la nota. “Atonal, Mozart traced the note.” And Julio Cortázar’s Átale, demoníaco Caín, o me delata, “Tie him up, demonic Cain, or he’ll turn me in.”

Palindromes might seem a mere scholarly game. But there are cases of contemporary writers who’ve developed these games to a true filigree with the palindrome. Poet and mathematician, Pedro Poitevin, the author of Eco da eco de doce a doce (Echo of echo from twelve to twelve) is one such case.
A él, amor. Goza la sed: ¡sálala! – To  him, love. Enjoy the thirst; salt it.

Salada, la sed es ala suma. – The salted thirst is supremely awing.
La hora perpetra, veleidosa, caro mal. – The hour perpetrates, changeful, dear evil.
Ásela del ala, hálale, dale sal, amor. –  Grab it by the wing, pull it, give it salt, love.
¿Acaso —di— elevarte preparo?  –  Perhaps – day – soaring I prepare?
Hala, musa. La sed es alada.  – Pull, muse. The thirst winged.
La sal —¡alas de salaz ogro— malea. – The salt – wing is salacious ogre- perverts.


In the same category is also the outstanding work of artist, Merlina Acevedo:

Seria soledad, allá, casi – Serious loneliness, there, almost –
raro, nos nieva a los solos. – rarely it snows over us the lonely.
Sola ave insonora, risa – Alone, soundless bird, laughter
callada de los aires. – silent in mid-air.


Palindromes aren’t just a graphic or literary curiosity. Historically they’ve also been a way to memorize particularly edifying sentences (as aids to memory) or simply as games similar to graffiti. In some European churches, you can still read this palindrome attributed to the Emperor Leon VI on baptismal fonts: ψίψον ανομήματα, μη μόναν όψιν: Ni [ps] on anomemata me monan o [ps] in, “Wash your sins, not just your face.”

Symmetry makes palindromes striking all on their own. And though meaning is often difficult to understand through strict logic, the enjoyment of these word games doesn’t lie entirely in the message of their texts but in their form. Scholar, Rebecca Benefiel, on studying the palindromes of Pompeii, remarked in an article, that the […] enjoyment of word-play and mental acrobatics radiated deep through ancient society…The graffiti of Pompeii thus testify to an active culture of writing and reading, not solely for the purpose of communication but also for simple enjoyment.

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