Discussion Guide

Name Games

Questioning identity in the April 2012 Poetry.

In the April 2012 Poetry, nothing is a given. Mothers turn into architecture (“The Arch”), mannequins into targets (“To the Mannequins”), and men into metal (“A Magnetic Personality”). Eduardo C. Corral performs such alchemy to magical effect:

In Colorado My Father Stacked and Scoured Dishes

in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.

If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a gob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters

on his black belt spell Sangrón.

 We never learn the father’s actual name, but after immigrating to the United States, he acquires a host of others—not just “Jalapeño” but also “frijolero,” “greaser,” “beaner,” and “illegal.” His belt labels him “Sangrón,” which means “nuisance.” We might wonder whether the father playfully claims this title for himself—or whether, more ominously, it reflects the intolerance that his other nicknames suggest. Later, the speaker mentions that his father slept in a stable, linking him with Christ, that ultimate figure of transformation. No wonder Corral addresses us as “borracho,” or “drunkard”: our own new identity suggests we have a hard time keeping things straight.

The goldfish floating through those first lines is similarly slippery. Does the father hock a golden gob of mucus because he doesn’t understand what “goldfish” means, or because he understands so well that he’s able to play on the meaning? Could those possibilities be connected? Are we able to operate with particular creativity within new contexts?

And what of the speaker’s identity? His father—who presumably provided him with an actual name—calls him “Scarecrow.” A scarecrow is a semblance of a person, dressed in old garments; the term suggests that the speaker lacks any character at all. As for those clothes, they belong to his father, whose nature is just as uncertain. He writes: “Again and again I borrow his clothes.”

V. Penelope Pelizzon handles not scarecrows but crows. In “Nulla Dies Sine Linea,” she tracks our migration from youth to age:

A crow guffaws, dirty man throwing the punch of his
one joke. And now, nearer, a murder

 answers, chortling from the pale hill’s brow.
From under my lashes’ wings they stretch

 clawed feet. There the unflappable years
perch and stare. When I squint, when I

grin, my new old face nearly hops
off my old new face. Considering what’s flown,

 what might yet fly, I lean my chin
on the palm where my half-cashed fortune lies.

Like Corral, Pelizzon asks what words and identities mean. “Crow” refers to the bird, the “dirty man,” and the expression “crow’s feet” even as it also alludes to old women and to death. “Murder” suggests at once an act of violence and a group of crows. The “pale hill’s brow” depicts both face and landscape. “Unflappable” relates literally to lashes, and metaphorically to the passing and implacable years. “Palm” hints at both the poet’s hand and a tree where birds might roost.

Why plant a poem in such shifting linguistic soil? Perhaps the words’ evolutions correspond to the poet’s as she ages. Her “new old face” has vanished in favor of her “old new face,” and these contradictory labels themselves reflect the paradoxes of identity. We may all have something in common with scarecrows.

In the poem’s title, Latin for “Never a day without a line,” “line” claims many meanings too: it suggests facial wrinkles, lines of poetry, and lifelines (as on one’s palm). The flexibility of that word provides Vera Pavlova with this observation in “Heaven is not Verbose: A Notebook”:

From the memoirs of Akhmatova’s last physician: she died at the moment when her cardiogram was being recorded. Her death has been recorded in the form of a straight line. Ruled paper ready-made. Go ahead and write.

Unlike Pelizzon and Corral, Pavlova uses change to hint at constancy. A cardiogram turns into lined paper, and from death springs the material for more creation—from the end of Akhmatova’s career, the seeds of future ones.

This issue offers several descriptions of poets who lived such consistency, remaining devoted to their crafts even as the “unflappable years” wrought their unwanted transformations. In a section called “Poets We’ve Known,” Maxine Kumin describes Howard Nemerov’s death from esophageal cancer. By the time he called her to say goodbye, “he had just had his vocal cords sprayed with a Teflon-like substance… so that he could keep a final speaking engagement.”

Muriel Rukeyser displayed similar commitment when she suffered a stroke during a reading. Writes Gerald Stern:

she sank slowly to the floor, still reading, and insisted only on a chair, refusing both doctor and ambulance, reciting the last lines of her portion from a prone position, the wires and the microphone in a heap on top of her.

During her collapse, Rukeyser continued reciting—suggesting how literature can steady us even as it accounts for our great instability.

Originally Published: April 2nd, 2012