uncertain power of giving names, and the unequalled surrender of taking them. I'll let you read the poem first; then we'll discuss. It's from that ground-breaking new volume, (please picture me re-enacting this scene here) Fire in the Pasture. The poet is Matthew James Babcock.
After visiting The Religious Reflection Room in the Detroit Metro Airport
In The Squatter’s Pub Brewery, two pilots
(I hope not mine) quaff beer
and devour Black and Bleu Rocket Wraps.
The label on the Odwalla’s bottle
from which I sip green puree says I have
swallowed Jerusalem artichoke,
a plant that, contrary to what its name
might suggest, is not an artichoke
and not from Jerusalem. This is
the equation of life: Nothing is what
it says it is. Despite the high price,
somehow this is healthy. The Italian,
girasole, means “sunflower.”
After Samuel de Champlain dispatched
shiploads of the bundled tubers
from Cape Cod to France, people
added “sunroot” and “earth apple”
to the legend. What is prayer but
a commerce of discoveries? When
is misunderstanding a pilgrimage?
Some days, the greatest risk
can be to sit and stare
at the intoxicating flight of daylight
through two glasses of amber.
This is, after all, the quest of the new world.
To drink the strange. To explore
without leaving. To grow into the myth
of one’s name and, having exiled
the nomad eye, make a holy city of the heart.
There’s so much here. First, “the equation of life: nothing is what it says it is.” In other words, the thing that divides us—our inability to truly understand each other—also equalizes us: we are all more, and less, than the face we show the world.
The speaker in the poem compares our search for God to our search for common ground with other humans. To connect with another person, we must exchange bits of self (“a commerce of discoveries”) and allow our misunderstandings, instead of further dividing us, to lead us (in a journey as important and revealing as a “pilgrimage”) to encounter those depths of identity we rarely see in others. The search for an understanding of our fellow-travelers requires the same faith as does the hopeful stretching toward an unknown God—the same faith we need to travel by plane, putting our lives in the hands of pilots who may or may not have been “quaff[ing] beer” in The Squatter’s Pub Brewery before the flight.
And then I love the way Babcock engages with what I see as the ultimate paradox of names: the way a name can both define you and fail to define you. Like the Jerusalem Artichoke, which is “not an artichoke/ and not from Jerusalem,” we are so much more than our names. We; like this plant with its sunflower-like flowers and its ugly, bulbous roots; may be composed of vastly different parts, impossible to be summed up by what others call us. And yet, we always begin there: our names are a starting point, a harbor from which to cast off, a “myth” atop which we build our true selves. And so, with Babcock, we “drink the strange” by allowing new experiences to enter us and blend with the old, leaving us changed but not unrecognizable. We “explore without leaving,” trying out new aspects of identity from time to time, learning to “grow into” the things others have seen in us---but never able, either, to escape who we have been all along.
Thus, even though we are more than what our parents named us, and more than what others see and name us as, we can still find rooted meaning in those names given us by others. We can still be nourished by our names. It is not, in other words, a hopeless quest to try and find our own and others’ true selves, within the clouds of misunderstanding and myth. We can know ourselves, and we can know others—but such knowledge is a “quest”, a “pilgrimage” rather than a quick jaunt. Instead of accepting without question the conventional labels, someone on such a quest must be willing to endure glimpses of another’s true self, like the “intoxicating flight of daylight” through a glass, without fear or disillusionment. And as a clearer pictures emerges of who he is, who others are, and who he is in relation to others, such a pilgrim must also be willing to build new truth amid the ruins of the old, creating a “New Jerusalem” that blends elements of his past with those new names he has forged for himself. I think what I was trying to say in my last post, about the power of taking a new name for yourself, comes through in these beautiful last lines: “To grow into the myth/ of one’s name and, having exiled/ the nomad eye, make a holy city of the heart.”