Postcard from America: Place Names
We are currently in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but we have been travelling over the last week through Kentucky and Indiana, enjoying the exotic particulars of place names. We keep driving past signs here pointing us to a town called "King of Prussia". Our favorite may have been in Indiana, Gnaw Bone, Indiana, where we saw a camper/rv park called "The Last Resort." What a great address--"The Last Resort, Gnaw Bone, Indiana."
Poets have of course long known the incantatory property of place names. There is the charming poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, Stephen Vincent Benet's oft-quoted "American Names" ("Bury my heart at Wounded Knee"), the end of Carol Ann Duffy's "Prayer":
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
It's an effect at least as old as Homer, which we recall when we think of the famous catalogue of ships in Iliad 2. A favorite poem that takes the smallest of crumbs from Homer's table in this passage is Seferis' "King of Asini"--which takes a textually dubious mention "and Asini", and tries to imagine the king of this settlement, which receives a single and textually dubious mention in Homer. (There is a version here, scroll down, perhaps taken from the Keeley translation.) The image of the bat as the shade of the king also derives from Homer, from the simile of the souls of the suitors in the Odyssey.
There are remains of a Mycenean fortress at Asini--huge Cyclopean walls and stones--which is in a stunningly beautiful spot in the Argolid overlooking the Aegean. Because it doesn't factor in Homer, though, there are almost no visitors to it. (You'd think the Seferis poem might change that.) When we last visited, there were not even any guards there, and you could just clambor about among the stones and wildflowers, with the slain-peacock-breasted sea dazzling in the background. We picnicked there once, and were surprised by the happy barks and chirps of a family of foxes playing nearby.
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...