eleven words

captured by
plummeting cold and
the scope of sacrifice.

On my last day of months of intensive German classes, we learned about Elfchens. No, not a race of small elves, but a type of poem consisting of eleven words in a specific format of words per line: one, two, three, four, and one word per line, in that order, as above.

Elf is the German word for eleven. Adding –chen to a noun in German gives it a sense of being wee or dear. The word Elfchen (always capitalized, as are all German nouns) translated into English is roughly elevenie.

In class, our teacher introduced us to the concept of the Elfchen, then asked us to pair off with the person sitting next to us and take turns reading the Elfchen about friendship from our textbook to each other … while looking deeply into each other’s eyes. (Yep, this is Germany. It’s time to bust up some stereotypes. Not only did the teacher instruct us to engage in deep eye contact with other foreigners, but that entire textbook chapter was about friendship.)

That day, I was sitting next to a very nice man from Afghanistan with big dark eyes and eyelashes that threatened to whap me in the face every time he blinked. We giggled, and then (because we really trusted our teacher) locked eyes and talked to each other in Elfchen about friendship. Eleven words each later and the class was a bit giddier, the energy distinctly more … present.

Next, we wrote our own Elfchens, in the same teams of two. First, we wrote one about his new baby. Then this one about home, translated here into English:

Who says
where it is?
Perhaps it is actually

We were a class of about 20, from Afghanistan, Canada, Iran, Iraq, Thailand, Chile, Macedonia, Romania, and more, all sharing a budding common language of German. In other words, we’re all between homes, all in the process of expanding our defiinitions of home.

I was impressed that the process of creating a poem of eleven words about home, in the presence of others in my same situation, made me feel so good, like the Elfchen concept was a can opener that allowed me to open a can full of expanded possibilities. (It’s only a small leap from that analogy to this short video (in English) about a baker in southern Germany who figured out how to can a Black Forest cake so that nostalgic Germans around the world could have a taste of home shipped to them.)

Try an Elfchen of your own. Eleven words. So short. But watch out. There’s something mischievously elfin in the Elfchen after all. Like that trick with mirrors, engaging with an Elfchen may show you unusual glimpses of the trickster.

A moment
of silent restraint
to sculpt possibility’s cup.


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