On Villanelles, Jigsaw Puzzles, and Covid-19

by Denise Low

Jigsaw puzzles occupied my husband and me as we outlasted the Covid-19 lockdown. The tidy, closed borders of the puzzle had a recursive quality that reminded me of poetry forms.

“Recursive” is a term I learned from the 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter. It was featured in bookstore displays for decades, but I was too broke to purchase it. So I read snippets as my kids perused Star Wars picture books. Hofstadter’s book has a section on puzzles, beyond my mathematical skills, in support of its main theme of recursiveness. I only understand the layperson’s understanding of the word “recursive,” but it was a potent concept. One example was the closed, repetitive form created by a Bach piano composition, with theme and countertheme structure. Another was Escher’s drawings that have no beginning and no end, like an ouroboros, or a serpent swallowing its own tail. The protocols of jigsaw puzzles require symmetries, or more correctly imperfect mirror images: not one bear in the pine tree, but also another across the forest. One set of gulls fly over an ocean and another flock hides in a corner beach. These are not exactly recursive, but they show the artifice of the genre. Also, the entire puzzle is a closed, self-contained world of its own.

Some poem forms interlock like jigsaw puzzles, with repeated lines that return to the first, like the sestina or the nineteen-line villanelle. A villanelle has two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with a set pattern until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. One of the best known is Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “House on the Hill” also shows the interlocking of repeated words from start to finish:

They are all gone away,
⁠The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
⁠The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
⁠To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
⁠Around that sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
⁠For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
⁠In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

The poem sets up a rhythmic spiral of expected repetitions with enough variation to create interest, so it becomes interesting to see how the poet will achieve each rung. Rhymes are still, shrill, ill, sill, skill, and hill. The final lines repeat both refrain lines and send readers back to the beginning in a perfect circle. The repeating rhyme and the repeating lines reinforce the thematic structure of the poem—isolation, circling of time—as well as the repeating nature of time itself. The poem is singular, self-contained.

My time studying poetic forms served me well when working on jigsaw puzzles. The poem creates its own vocabulary, players, tone (or color), and drama. I approached puzzles as I would a new poem, but one that unfolded slowly. Each puzzle, like a lyric, has a palette, a texture, even an emotion. These snapshots in time often preserve an implied story—picnickers on a lawn, for example, kite flyers on ashore, a distant country house covered with snow.

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