I’ve developed a new relationship with my name. It amuses me to think about it this way, but I believe it’s become my “brand.” Of course, that’s due to pushing my books into print and starting this website and, more recently, this blog. As long as I was branding, though, I really might have done a better job. The writer Cheryl Strayed, for instance, chose a name that reflects the reckless path that became the subject of Wild, her recent and very successful memoir. My name, on the other hand, has no design at all. I married young at a time when only movie stars kept their maiden names and, in fact, the married name I acquired was not even directly from my husband. Had the Y chromosome in his family matched the assumption, I might actually be writing as a Bassett.
And Emily? Would it make any sense to think a person might distinguish herself with one of the most common names of the current generation? Simply, no. Yet it wasn’t a popular name when I was young. People, in fact, always looked a bit sympathetic when I said it aloud. It was a name that belonged to a colorless great aunt if it belonged to anyone at all. I was certain, in fact, that I was the only person in the country who actually owned it. When I heard it spoken, I knew that people were either talking to or about me.
This matter of names has attracted me now because our family is officially naming one of ours this weekend. Casey, the youngest grandson is being fêted with a party that will roll out all his names and most of the people he knows. And in what is now a three-time tradition, his parents, once again living dangerously, requested a poem. It’s a job I should probably take more seriously, but if I did I’m sure I would find it both perilous and paralyzing. Instead, I’ve just had fun, coming up with whimsical pastiches that don’t quite get things right. It’s the lovely thing about poets that they generally don’t consider it theft when people riff on their ideas or borrow the particular way their sounds echo, test the tambourine shake of their words. It’s as if the generous experience written into their lines extends to a sense that we all come out ahead when we play this particular call and response.
Here, then, are the poems I’ve adopted to adapt. The first, borrowed for Owen, who already owns the mind of a very bright young man, is Henry Reed’s devilishly witty “Naming of Parts. I changed its title to “Naming of Owen” and this is a line that slipped by with very little harm: “For today we have naming of Owen.”
The basis of Tate’s poem is a grab bag of lines from different e.e. cummings poems, all reflecting the sort of whimsy that is very much Tate. Here’s a real line: “he sang his didn’t he danced his did” and the substitute: “he wiggled his didn’t he cooed his did.”
And finally, Casey. star of the occasion for whom I’ve wandered into one of my favorite poems. If tradition rules, it suggests he’ll like an adventure, spinning from a handful of exotic names–Lake Yohoa, Copán, Bat God of Twilight, Sierra Espiritu Santo, Bay Islands—to what passes for this weekend’s inanity.
Dreaming Casey out of the Nursery
After “Dreaming You Out of Honduras”
by Joyce Sutphen
At night when your brothers do not sleep
but skid over wooden floors
while beds shine slickened with moonlight,
the future comes to you
dressed in a sack of sleep.
Sea foam. Alligator.
Beneath the shoulder of crib,
they are there as you say—
the day’s striped shirt, the six inch jeans
waiting to join the dark spill of laundry.
Fishers of night haul fish into boats
skimming bookshelves of zebras,
elephants, oxcarts, and Maddux the cat
swatting Star Puffs and string cheese
and Tate’s last bit of pizza.
Somewhere a bell peals,
laugh of la bella madre,
up and onto the dining room table
with melons from Costco.
In this dream, Owen rolls the rug backward,
Uncovers the bats of twilight
where it is still summer’s innings
hanging from stars, the sea of sky riding high
and pirate’s flags scented with centuries.
Casey, see peaks? the long dark of Europe?
In this dream I have brought you,
ancestors march forward—call out in a clear voice
of triumph. No plagues. No fires.
No broken walls of a Jericho.
Here, the tallest tree is a father.
He eyes slippery steps,
counts stairsteps of boys,
though in this house
they raise only Meiers.