“Vade Mecum” is Latin and means “come with me.” In the 19th century, it became popular to create books that today would be called life hacks. Shortcuts for building and measuring, buying and planting crops, even travel, had vade mecum in the name. Even today, there is a brand name of notebooks and journals with that name.
One of my favorite vade mecum is the traveler’s book published in 1853. It was almost a code book.
In those days, pre-smart phone, in fact, pre-telephone of any sort, people sent telegrams when they traveled. Telegrams were letters sent over telegraph wires, which shortened time that mail took to reach from one person to the next.
Telegrams shortened international communication times from weeks to days. (After 1858, when the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid.)
Telegrams were charged by the word. The end of the sentence was not a period, it was the word
“stop” and it counted as a word. Of course, anyone sending a telegraph tried to edit the message to the shortest possible length with the most content possible.
The Traveler’s Vade Mecum helped travelers shorten telegrams by use of a code. The sender and receiver would each have a copy of the book. Numerical abbreviations stood for whole phrases, and were indexed in the book.
So the statement, “I have arrived in Paris,” might be written as “45 Paris.” And “I will write immediately upon my arrival in Spain” would become “8426 Spain.”
Helen Klein Ross knew about the Traveler’s Vade Mecum and took it one step further, into the land of poetry. She used the abbreviations from the book and assigned them to various willing writers as poetry prompts. Her book, also called The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, contains poems that are both wide-ranging and fun to read.
Here’s an example by Julie Suarez. The poem was originally published in the New York Times Magazine, on February 5, 2017, in Matthew Zapruder’s “Poem” column.
“There Was A Great Want of Civility”
All night in the trees,
a great disorder, not the way
leaves talk among themselves
during the day, not the rustle
of squirrels and birds among them,
but a tossing, shiftless shadow
weight of darkness,
leaf to leaf.
I dared not close my eyes
for fear it would have
its way with me.
could anyone sleep? –Julie Suarez
—Quinn McDonald loves stories about writing, poetry, and innovative ways to combine them.