September 2011
Gregory Kornbluh

Doubling in the Middle

Barry Duncan Is Quite Possibly the World’s First Master Palindromist, and He Refuses to Cede Control to the Alphabet

Discussed: Epic Struggles, The Distance Between Masters and Hacks,Palindromic Taxonomy, A Convenient Ampersand, Cutting-Edge Work in Reversibility, Some Limitations of an Untrained Audience, A Strange Kind of Amazing, The Relationship Killer, Disproportionate Responses, A Surfeit of Calendars, A Deficit of Wool and Illusions

In March 2010, Barry Duncan, master palindromist, was locked in an epic struggle with the alphabet. He was totally absorbed in the completion of a commissioned piece. “It’s draining me of every bit of energy I have,” he explained at the time. He was also just getting over a cold, his first since January 2002, and certain that it was the project that had made him sick. He’d been working on it for as many as twelve hours a day. Then, on April 6, after an estimated two hundred hours of toil, Barry Duncan unleashed on this world the greatest palindrome of his life. “Far and away the best reversible work I’ve ever, ever done,” he calls it.

You know palindromes—words or phrases that read the same forward or backward. “Party booby trap.” “Lisa Bonet ate no basil.” And, famously, “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!” When you think about palindromes, you probably just think they’re fun.

For Duncan, though, they’re much more than that. He writes them constantly. He sees them everywhere. Have you ever killed twenty dull minutes scanning the grid of a word-search puzzle, and then afterward found yourself with a bit of a word-search hangover, your eyes involuntarily searching for words everywhere? Imagine doing the word search for three decades. That’s Barry Duncan with palindromes.

Duncan’s in his early fifties, fit, with receding salt-and-pepper hair and a short beard that he trims three times a week. He’s spent his adult life working in bookstores. He’s originally from New Jersey, but was in and out of Massachusetts from the late ’70s until 1993, when he became a full-time employee of the Harvard University Press Display Room, an on-campus storefront for the press’s titles. That’s where he worked until the summer of 2009, when the recession led to the store’s closure. Last year was the first since 1978 in which he didn’t work in a bookstore.

It was actually while working at Encore Books in Philadelphia in 1981 that he started playing with palindromes, after a volume of wordplay caught his eye. He started to think about palindromes and the possibilities for them, and then… you might say that they took over. There was a point at which, Duncan half-jokes, he actually thought he might need to be hospitalized. “I really couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about reversibility all the time. And then it just became very natural for me.” And now? “I’m just all the time doing it,” he says. “I write hundreds a day, probably.” Reverse is his default gear now, as made clear by his advice to would-be palindromists, who, Duncan says, should begin by reversing everything: “Every word you see, every word you hear, every word you read, every word you write. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that all day, and all night, that’s what I’m doing.”

Even before actually meeting Duncan, I’d been told about his palindromes. It was early 2009, and I’d just taken a job with Harvard University Press. When I first heard him described as a “master palindromist,” I imagined, briefly, some sort of governing body with an esoteric ranking structure, doling out titles like “grandmaster” in chess. But no. For Duncan the title is self-proclaimed. “When I say I’m a master palindromist, there are two answers for what that means,” he explained. “One is that it means, when it comes to palindrome-writing, I know what I’m doing. The other, slightly longer, slightly more combative answer is that it means you shouldn’t confuse me with any of those garden-variety, ‘Madam I’m Adam’ hacks who couldn’t paint my shadow.” His speech often has a theatrical quality, slowed and emphasized toward the ends of sentences. You learn fairly quickly that he has a tendency to repeat himself. Not the careless repetition of telling you the same thing twice, but the practiced, verbatim repetition of entire anecdotes. And so, when he explains what it means to be a “master palindromist,” and it’s the only time that I see his hackles raised, I can tell that it’s a practiced response, a performed aggravation at the nerve of those who doubt. “I mean, I don’t know what to say. I gave myself the title ‘master palindromist,’ but I’m the one inventing the terminology, and making the rules, so I might as well be giving out titles as well.”

It’s true that Duncan has developed his own terminology and taxonomy for palindromes. One way that he categorizes them is by length. Those of one hundred or more characters are labeled simply “long.” Palindromes of one hundred or more words he calls “epic.” And palindromes of one thousand or more characters are called “mega.” When he explains these terms, it’s with the matter-of-fact tone of a science teacher defining the prefixes of the metric system, only afterward pausing to clarify that “those are just categories I invented, of course.”

He’s also identified some guidelines for palindrome-writing. One cardinal rule to which he always returns involves “doubling in the middle,” which he calls a “near-fatal error” and the mark of an inexperienced palindromist. As he explained in our first conversation about palindromes, “If I say to you, ‘straw,’ and you thought, well, ‘straw warts,’ that’s a palindrome, but the w is doubled, so it only calls attention to the palindrome. What you want is for some letter to be the reversible hinge. So if you said to me, ‘straw,’ I would think, ‘straw arts.’ And then that w is removable, and it could be ‘strap arts,’ ‘stray arts.’” Still getting my bearings, I asked whether the embargo on a doubled middle was a general rule, something that all palindromists know. “I know it.” But how does he know it? “I know it because I know it, not because there’s anybody who said anything. I know it because it’s been my experience.”

Duncan even has names for different types of palindromes. Consider the following piece, which he wrote before a performance at the Cambridge venue Club Passim by a former colleague named Abdul-Wahab, who played the oud and was accompanied by a flamenco guitarist.

Miss apt A-W on oud?
No! Set a date, son:
Duo now at Passim.

Duncan refers to this type of composition as a three-layer vertical stack, or “3LVS,” and he considers it to be the “most visually and emotionally satisfying reversible arrangement.” The satisfaction comes from the tidiness: the third line is the exact opposite of the first line, and the second line is a self-contained palindrome that serves to “keep the peace between the first and third lines.” He says that he finds them “very tense and very elegant,” but that it’s rare for a palindrome to work out naturally as a 3LVS. So rare, in fact, that of all the palindromes that he’s written, Duncan says that this one about Abdul-Wahab’s performance may be the only one that really is satisfying as a natural 3LVS. Barry Duncan, master palindromist, has developed nomenclature and a nuanced appreciation for feats he’s managed to accomplish just a single time.

Palindrome-writing in itself is nothing new. Bill Bryson, in his history of the English language, The Mother Tongue, puts the form at at least two thousand years old, citing our knowledge of Greek and Roman palindromes. The word itself derives from the Greek palindromos—“running back again”—and Bryson dates its English debut to 1629. He even claims to have found the first recorded palindrome in English, by the poet John Taylor (“Lewd I did live, & Evil did I dwel”), though, as Bryson points out, the ampersand is a bit of a disqualifier.

Palindromes are just one form of wordplay among many. There are anagrams (transpositions of the letters of a word or phrase into a new word or phrase using exactly the same letters), tautonyms (words or phrases of two or more identical parts), isograms (words containing no more than one of any letter), pangrams (groups of words using each and every letter of the alphabet exactly once), bigrams, trigrams, tetragrams, and on we go. Many of these forms of wordplay have been around for quite a long time, but A. Ross Eckler, former editor of Word Ways magazine, dates a “renaissance of interest in recreational linguistics” to the mid-1960s. The growing interest in palindromes themselves can be tracked, indirectly, by the exponential increase in length of the Guinness-recognized world’s longest palindrome: from 242 words in 1971; to 11,125 in 1980; to 44,444 in 1984, sometime after which they seem to have stopped keeping the record.

Despite the form’s long history, Duncan says that what he’s doing with palindromes is really a step forward. He is aware of various published books of palindromes, but they mostly leave him unimpressed. “Every once in a while you see a good combination and you think, Oh, that’s an interesting thing, but you see a lot of people who double in the middle, you see people who use all upper case, you just see all kinds of bad examples. I don’t really see that anyone is doing cutting-edge work in reversibility.” That Duncan doesn’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, of course. (As I learned later, the comedian Demetri Martin, for example, has written at least one long, coherent palindrome, but has also impressively trained his body to perform palindromic feats like drawing mirror images with both hands simultaneously. To see his outstretched arms trace reciprocal birthday cakes is most definitely to witness cutting-edge work in reversibility.)

When I asked Duncan how hard he’s looked for his “competition,” he confessed to not having exhausted himself. “I’m sure there are many, many people who write palindromes,” he said. “I don’t see anybody doing what I’m doing, but that doesn’t mean nobody’s doing it. And you have to remember this: People who write palindromes are not the kind of people who are going to call attention to themselves. I think they’re very much people who are comfortable being behind the scenes, practicing the invisible craft.” When Duncan uses that last phrase on me for the first time, he just throws it out as a matter of fact. He’s not being ironic, using air quotes, or even smiling.

RE: NO GAS IN AGE? BEWARE.

Warren, old as sin, am red. Lost—or reviled—a female. (No, a hag!) Elder, it passes old lot. Fossil. Lip sags, eh? Flesh sags. Poor devil! At one, nips.A store, cafe, zoo. “Pops.” No, is elder, has gas till it’s late. Menace. No bristle, few warts on nose. Hoots. Peels, eh? Park, late: talk, rap. He sleeps, too. (He’s on no straw.We felt, sir: Bone. Cane. Metal.) Still, it sags. Ah! Red lesions pop, ooze. Face rots. A spine, not alive, droops. Gash self? He’s (gasp) ill, is soft, old, loses sap, tired. Leg? Aha, one lame! Fade. Liver rots. Older man is sad loner, raw. Era we began is a goner.

Roger Angell, a writer for the New Yorker since the 1940s, once described palindromes as “a literary form in which the story line is controlled by the words rather than by the author.” My sense is that Duncan would probably say that’s a description of other people’s palindromes. Because part of what makes him a master is his refusal to cede control. When things are going really well with a Barry Duncan palindrome, when he’s really in a zone, he thinks to himself, I’m making these letters do my bidding. Sure, he’ll have fun with word combinations, and he pens countless short palindromes that probably ought to be considered as coauthored by the words themselves. In fact, during one of our meetings, at a coffee shop in Cambridge called Simon’s, he grabbed my notebook to riff on the café’s name, leaving me empty-handed, anxiously unable to document what looked like magic before me. He arrived almost immediately at “stars simons no miss rats,” which, with a little punctuation, could conjure a lovely absurdist scene in which a few same-named chaps help a poor, confused woman tell rodents from the night sky. He refers to this kind of quick palindrome play as “writing in real time.”

However, Duncan’s virtuosity really comes through when he writes topical palindromes, intentional constructions whose degree of difficulty is often lost on an untrained audience. “I always say to people, the easiest thing in the world to do is write a palindrome. The hardest thing to do is write a palindrome on a particular subject.” The palindrome that Duncan released last April, the one that had made him sick and so consumed the month before, was commissioned (in the sense of “asked for,” but not in the sense of “paid for”) by the Cambridge eco-boutique Greenward, whose owners are Duncan’s close friends. The occasion was the store’s third anniversary, and the palindrome made its debut as the fourth item in Greenward’s April e-newsletter. Humble origins, to be sure, but the Greenward palindrome is a strange kind of amazing. It’s over four hundred words—nearly three times the length of this paragraph so far—and about one thousand three hundred characters. In composing it, Duncan had as many as six legal pads going at once, and the ninety-some crowded pages of notes he kept look like the sort of scribblings you might find in someone’s case file.

The Greenward palindrome is, ostensibly, a conversation between Ben Nelson, the Democratic United States senator from Nebraska, and James Inhofe, his Republican counterpart from Oklahoma, that is initially about climate change but that becomes a discussion of the store, its owners, staff, inventory, patrons, and spirit. The thing is, though, it’s not really a dialogue, and it’s not really prose. As far as standard literary forms go, it actually most closely resembles a poem; it requires some effort to be deciphered, let alone understood, but if you try you can see its beauty. Parts of it stand out clearly as clever writing, regardless of the form, such as the stand-alone line “Go, ecotopia!” Other parts, like the bit including the reverse of that ecotopian battle cry (“A IPO to CEO? Greed, sir!”), are tougher to appreciate without an understanding of the internal plumbing involved in a long palindrome. According to Michael Donner, author of the reversibly titled palindrome trove I Love Me, Vol. I, palindromes are perhaps best thought of as “a sort of cultivated dyslexia.” As a description of the Greenward palindrome, that sounds about right.

A first encounter with something like Duncan’s Greenward palindrome can definitely be confusing. Maybe even underwhelming. There are clipped bits of words and choppy, short sentences. You don’t really know what you’re looking at, how to judge it, or what to think of the fact that somebody has obviously invested a good bit of time in its creation. And so Duncan’s palindromes are often met with silence, something he learned for good in April of 1994, which he refers to as “that ill-fated month when I started to alienate people.” His work had progressed to the point where he thought that he had started to “test the limits” of what was possible for palindromes. In order to share some of his writing, he produced a small collection, which he titled Assorted Palindromes and One Song. It wasn’t long before a close friend dubbed it “The Relationship Killer.”

Duncan would send the collection to people he knew and simply never hear from them again. So he began warning people. “I tell people before I give it to them, ‘I give this to people, I never hear from them again.’ And they say, ‘Ha ha ha, that won’t happen.’ And it happens. People think it’s freakish, and don’t even know what to say about it.” And the thing is, he wasn’t looking for affirmation. “I didn’t expect people to say, ‘Oh, I was dazzled!’ All I wanted them to say was ‘I got it in the mail.’They can’t even write and say, ‘Oh, thanks for the thing you sent me.’ I mean, just… nothing. And I think a normal person would’ve thought, you know, this palindrome-writing is not the way to win friends and influence people.”

Duncan recently had the same experience after posting a series of palindromes on his Facebook page. They were just fun, short palindromes that he was writing in real time. “I was just zipping them out,” he says, though he thought some of them were actually pretty good. And, just as with “The Relationship Killer,” these new palindromes mostly met with silence. “I would get, like, one response. And I thought if I wrote, ‘Oh, I just went out to the store and got a quart of Ben & Jerry’s mint chocolate chip ice cream!’ I would have, like, six responses. People would say, ‘Oh! That’s my favorite kind!’ or, ‘Oh! I hope you enjoy it!’ Instead I would just look and there’d be nothing. I don’t know. It’s an unusual thing.”

Despite his pride in palindromes, Duncan does sometimes seem a bit wistful for what might have been. “If I had the choice, would I prefer to be a master palindromist or to be a very good novelist, I think I would…” he says, before trailing off and starting again. “I would like to excel at something that’s more genuinely literary, probably. But that’s not to say that I’m not pleased with palindrome-writing.” Duncan has tried writing in other styles, but his talent for more traditional literary forms has never approached his way with palindromes. “I have a real problem constructing plot,” he says, “and I think part of that is that I have little command of logic in my daily life. I mean, I just don’t know what’s going on.”

Barry Duncan’s not crazy. But he is quirky. He hasn’t driven since 1986. So obsessively thorough is his list-making that two friends gifted him with a leather notebook embossed with the directives “pair socks” and “eat oatmeal.” He has pen pals. He drinks only water. By my count there were no fewer than sixteen calendars and planners in his four-room apartment last year. But, unlike those people who are quirky and seem not to know it, Duncan is self-aware. “That’s just my way,” he’ll say, in that theatrical voice. And, when it comes to palindrome-writing, there’s really no wool over his eyes. There’s a joke he likes to tell, a pickup line he swears he’d never really use: “I’m a master palindromist, and I can teach you how to neutralize the letter h.” Not so lucky in love, he often teases his mother sarcastically by saying, “Mom, I don’t have a girlfriend. And I’m a master palindromist.” It’s fair to say that Duncan’s under no illusions about how the world perceives the invisible craft.

And yet, once last year when we were talking about palindromes, Duncan told me a story about a guy he knew who worked in solar energy. In the ’80s, Duncan had asked the guy whether he really thought solar would ever catch on. “He said he thought the thing that would be the turning point for it would be if there was some very simple, practical, daily application that people could see, and then they would say, ‘Oh, solar energy, this is something that makes sense.’ And I think with palindrome-writing, it’s not a surprise that people just think it’s unusual, or it’s maybe an interesting intellectual exercise, but once… someone cracks a code with it… once someone figures out a cure for an illness with it… then people will say, ‘Reversibility! What a great thing!’” I said it sounded like he thought that palindromes were headed toward some greater recognition, like reversibility just needed its tipping point. “That’s exactly what I think. There has to be something more important about it than just stringing words together.”

So what are the possibilities? What might palindromes help us figure out? Duncan can’t say, really. Maybe palindromes could be a cure for something? “Right.” Doing palindromes could be a cure for, say, Alzheimer’s? “Right.” And they could be something… bigger? “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, it could be some way to unravel some part of the DNA, the genome, but who knows. I mean, I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I feel like, to do something at this level is a gift of some kind, and I think that something, somewhere, could happen as a result.”

Duncan says he got this feeling very strongly in October of 2009. He’d just written a long palindrome for a friend about aging, and says it was a breakthrough for him. “It was the longest single-subject palindrome I ever wrote, and, really, I look at it now and think it’s seamless.” And that was the beginning of a streak of writing that lasted through the completion of the Greenward palindrome, a stretch of six months that Duncan calls the most fertile of his life. “I mean, I’m writing palindromes all the time, but it’s really unprecedented, the length of the palindromes, the speed with which I’m writing them. I feel like I’m taking this further and further, but I don’t know where it will lead me.”

When I press him on the possibilities, he’s slow to respond, and what comes is full of thoughtful pauses, without the polish of so much of what he says. “I think it is natural for a misfit to imagine that he’ll become a hero. I just think that’s a natural human situation. And so I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, people think I’m a freak now, but just wait.’ But, in a way, I do think, if something like that was to happen, people would at least have more respect for the process. That they would say, ‘Oh, this was the key to figuring that out, so it was useful.’ I don’t say that people would build monuments to reversibility or anything, but there would be some appreciation, I guess.” And then he hedges, doubles back—like a palindrome. “It’s not to say that I’m right. I’m an unemployed bookstore clerk and I’m fifty-three years old. But, I mean, I enjoy doing it, and it’s a real challenge. It’s fun. And there may be more to it.

ADDITIONALLY

The Greenward Palindrome + a list of references, acronyms, and abbreviations therein can be read as a supplement to this article

Gregory Kornbluh works in scholarly publishing. He lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

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