Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Names, part I

I like names. Do you remember having to write acrostics in grade school, using your name as the form?  You were supposed to somehow capture who you were in so many (non-)descriptive adjectives: "marvelous"; "awesome"; "rad"!  Re-reading any of my own grade-school poems is almost unbearable to me now, but I remember thinking Philip's a gem of understatement:

Pretty
Hungry
If
Left
In the
Pantry.

I have loved the process of naming, with Sam, our children: as our tastes agree, we have luckily been spared the arguments, and left with the delight of endless discussion: "This name says this with its syllables, this with its visual height"; "Is the strength or the lightness here more prominent?"; "When you say this name, whose eyes peek around its corners?"  I confess to naming imaginary babies, and to occasionally re-naming people around me (how presumptuous of me, Becky/Mary; thank you for allowing it!), and certainly to listening for the ringing of names, in my head and everywhere:
the "ineffable effable
       Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name."


I have written about the way words ring in my head elsewhere (it's why I like poetry, I'm sure) but I'm still turning the topic of naming things over in my mind and trying to see what else I think. (That oft-quoted line from E.M. Forster: "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?")  You may hear from me again on the subject.

But here's one thing I think: when you try to capture some abstract thing and re-present it with a name, it's almost magical.  I loved learning about this in English classes; I even sat through the dreaded Deconstruction lecture with interest because I like to see what's inside words.  Names are talismans (we Christians should know that if anyone does) and even as I watch the tiny bundles named by us---they turn before my eyes into people who begin to name other things around them, who fill their own names and animate them with their own spirits, who both slip into and slip out of all the things I named them when they arrived in my arms.
That's why I like this poem, by Katie Peterson.  I think it's kind of a difficult poem partly because of its long, spun-out phrases, but I find a lot of truth in the way the speaker grasps at, yet cannot capture, the essence of a thing in naming it.  There is so much of that at the beginning, and even well into, a relationship: the fumbling attempts to find out who are you really? and who am I with you?.  I love the image of the mathematician full of false confidence, thinking he has described the tree when all he has really done is counted it.  I guess we could also add the idea of the poet, thinking he has created the tree when all he has really done is described it.  I do feel despairing, sometimes, wondering how anyone really begins to understand anyone else---with so much room for error and offense even among those closest to us, and so much imprecision in language, and when we so often don't even know our own selves.  I wonder if the things I've named my children, those tiny strangers---not just their names, of course, but the identities I inadvertently impose on them---are even capturing a small part of who they actually ARE.  This poem speaks to that hopelessness.  More on this later, but for now:

At the Very Beginning
by Katie Peterson

When I named you I was on the verge
of a discovery, I was accumulating

data, my condition was that of a person
sitting late at night in a yellowing kitchen

over steeping tea mumbling
as his wife remotely does the laundry.

My condition was that of a mathematician
who cannot put the names to colors,

who, confusing speaking and addition,
identifies with confidence the rain

soaked broad trunked redwood tree (whose
scent releases all of winter) saying as he passes one

4 comments:

  1. Oh, Marilyn. I need to re-enter the blogging world just so I can be intellectually fed by you! :). Fascinating topic. Now I'm reflecting on my own motivations for naming my brood, beyond the superficial "it sounded nice." By the way, I smiled at Philip's acrostic poem. It jogged some distant memory so I know I've heard it before.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I keep thinking I'll get sick of reading/talking about names, but it just hasn't happened yet. I've found it's odd to let go of all the other names we didn't name the baby. They feel like completely different people we could have willed into being. I know this isn't true, but it might not be entirely untrue either.

    Thank you also for reminding me (through Philip) of a favorite poem from my own brother.

    Bonk. Bang. Crash.
    Shoes in the dryer.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am very tired and sniffly and snuck out of bed because I couldn't succumb to it. I've read your piece here with growing distress - too many things I wanted to say in return, all coming too fast for my stuffy brain. Some say that we, in using words, construct the world in which we live, and I do believe that to a degree. With words we lay down the rules about where one thing ends and another begins; we decide our causalities. We can throw words at each other and break things with them. And that is all naming. I name people in my books. Don't ask me how I do it - I'd be embarrassed to answer. But I love, love, love the snippets of you and Sam deciding. Murphy was named Jackson, but it was two days after he came home when that realer name just came out of my mouth and that was that.

    Foster and I differ only in that I don't know what I'm thinking until I hear myself say it. And writing becomes an extension of that. What a great relief to put names to the packets of thought and the streaks of ideas - like taking photographs of children who will too soon be grown, or light that changes before you've quite seen it.

    I've never made a poem out of my name, not on any level.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There was supposed to be an R. in E's name, darn it.

    ReplyDelete