by Jeff Oaks


Is the letter that British spies and disobedient Southern children have to report to. Yes’m. It’s the practical Auntie we return to after dreaming of Oz. It is the camel in the middle of the alphabet, Bactrian, stoic. The pivot around which English spins. Is often the first sound we can make as we take from mom her milk, a hum even the toothless can manage, a sound you can make with your mouth full of pleasure. Tipped forward, it asks a question. Tipped backward, it implies disapproval. Doubled and deepened, it can mean More. Doubled, deepened, and slowed, it can mean No More.

It’s a fundamental sound. You can make and hold it a long, long time, massaging both the throat and the cavern of the mouth with a sound like a cello, thus the pleasure of the cello—one of the few instruments whose noise almost perfectly replicates the sound the self hears from the inside as it thinks.

Having just come back from AWP, I’m also thinking about the panel I saw celebrating Muriel Rukeyser’s centenary. Among the poets—my friend Jan Freeman, whose press sponsored the event, and Olga Broumas—was Sharon Olds, who was in one of Rukeyser’s classes in New York City. Olds is an extremely well-known poet and a veteran performer of poetry, she was a little ill as well, and as she spoke, she often punctuated her remarks with a kind of MMMM sound, as opposed to the other, more expected sound UMMM. It was striking to hear. I barely remembered anything she said because I was so surprised by what sounded like a cross between an orgasm and a child sipping a favorite juice. She’d be telling a story about what it was like to MMMM be in a class with Rukeyser one minute and then MMMM would pause a moment, filling in the space with that sound.

One friend I was with wondered if she was even aware of it, it was so odd sounding. My sense was that she might have trained herself away from using UMMM as a place holder or space holder as she spoke. Think of the difference between hearing someone say UMMM and then saying something (you’d think that someone was thinking on her feet, was inventing things as she spoke which might or might not be true, thoughtful, meant). Using MMMM as a place for the voice and thought to rest, as a place for the listener to rest too in a long speech, had a very different effect. It added drama, surprise, and yes, even a kind of erotic element to Olds’ remarks. The downside of using it was that it was so startling to hear it was easy to forget what was being said. I wondered if it was some kind of technique that actors might know or singers or practiced speakers might use to save the voice or stretch the vocal chords. Or to keep the mind moving forward, keep thought moving hungrily onward.

Ever since I heard Olds do that I’ve been making the noise myself, usually quietly, at odd moments in the café or at home. The dog shoots me a sideways glance, afraid he’s done something wrong. I scratch his neck to reassure him; he leans into it, humming yet another version of mmm, the pleasure of the massage, the tight muscle finally being attended to, and from that down the long lovely length of him, until he collapses beside me, rests his head on my knee and closes his eyes so he can disappear into his own happiness.