In Billings, Montana my grandfather—a handsome young guy from Fayetteville, Arkansas—worked as a baker in a basement with a window that looked out onto a main street. This was the Great Depression. From there, each morning, he could see the legs of passersby, and from there he picked out the legs of my grandmother on her way to nurses’ training. The story goes on to include her jilted fiancé, a whistle or catcall (not quite sure which), the strategic pink bathing suit tossed over her shoulder as she walked down that same street and a decision to wed that took about 24 hours. I love this story for the specific place and perspective which tells me about these people, my family before they were my family. Billings, Montana helps me call into place a place I’ve never been. It helps me, in the words of Yi-Fu Tuan, “render the invisible, visible, …impart a certain character to things” (qtd. in Cresswell 98). Our grandparents and parents—all of those people who came before us—are, in part, a mystery. They knew the world before us. They were, at least, slightly different people before we came along. The fixture of proper names helps make visible that world we never knew.
In his essay, “The Reach of Place/To Reach in Place/Places Reaching,” the poet, Michael Anania, tells us:
Places, those areas of collective perception we have names for (home, the playground, Omaha, Chicago, Texas, The West) are conventions through which we offer a kind of stability to the world’s welter, even though our experience of places is, as much as anything, about change. “You know, when I was a kid, the city ended here, and that,” you gesture toward an expense of highways, shopping malls and office buildings, “was cornfields.” And the names that hold these conventions together are as certain and arbitrary as myth and as essential, though they are in general, but especially in America, the record of one or another kind of political, economic or cultural ascendency. To the winner goes the naming.
While Billings was named after the president of the Pacific Northwest Railroad, Frederick H. Billings, the English name is rooted in the word “sword.” Given the history of westward expansion and the indigenous peoples of the area, the name is indicative of “the winner.” To complicate things and reveal our American complexity, Montana is derived from the Spanish montaña, mountain. Names: The Crow Nation, Benjamin F. Harding, Pompey’s Pillar, Beartooth Highway, Montaña del Norte.
Proper names work like mailboxes, according to the philosopher, Saul Kripke. You may have visited Billings, Montana and so what you know of it—its restaurants, the light in the evening, the fact you lost your wallet there, its geographic expanse— all gets sent to the name. Now that I’ve told you the story of my grandparents’ courtship and of the etymology of its names, you have other associations that all add to what you already know. The name becomes, as Anania says, “a kind of stability to the world’s welter.”
Susan Briante’s Utopia Minus (Ahsata, 2011) provides such stability in her naming without dispensing with mystery. When I first encountered the book, I was on a reading tour with another poet. We drove hours from Oklahoma City to Tulsa to Fayetteville, Arkansas to Kansas City to Fulton, Missouri and back to Tulsa. We read poems out loud. We listened to Jay-Z’s Black Album. We talked about our formation as writers. We laughed at the various bumper stickers (Save the Ta-Ta’s) and the Moorish architecture of the Cheesecake Factory. We talked about Paris and Spain and our growing up years. Reading Utopia Minus on this particular trip felt both comforting and estranging: Another mind in its reading and attentions and thinking on the daily occurrences. A mind clearly engaged with, but also in awe of the world. The poems didn’t seem to keep much—if anything—out of them.
In “Notes from the Last Great Civil War Story,” she begins in the note taking of the day’s events and reading, but as the stanza moves, it turns towards a slightly eerie temporal meditation:
Our dog licks my teacup;
days of summer, I study
new urbanism, racial
uprisings, cultural memory,
patterns of glassworks
n some foreign field of sand,
“high mortality events.”
Death makes such a blunt box
such a 24 hour news channel,
video of a cypress tree
which refuses to grow
while a window
around the screen
goes from dark to light,
day to night (11).
This reflection on the passage of time presents us with a kind of desolation. While death keeps technologically rolling or being portrayed 24 hours, the window provides a natural world passage of time through its light and absence of light. This opening stanza presents the backdrop for the “great story” we’re about to hear in which General Joseph Johnston “removes his hat as the corteges passes” at General Sherman’s funeral—his old adversary—
“saying Sherman/ would have done no less./ Johnston dies of pneumonia/ 2 weeks later” (11).
While the first part of the poem is the speaker moving among the banalities of the day, her studies, the observations of reports of death within the temporal life and death, it’s the ending that reveals the naming that exceeds stability:
Woke this morning in Dallas
with Bentonville, NC
written on my palm (12).
It is the ending with the place names of Dallas and Bentonville, NC that provide us with two different energies—one, stability and the other, mystery. Dallas, in this case, is a place where the actual life occurs. The light in the window around the screen goes from dark to light. Dallas is that waking place, the living—with all of its properties. Bentonville, NC, on the other hand, works both as a place name, but also, as an allusion and one that arrives with ghostly properties. It works as both the name penned to the palm and forgotten about until morning, and as the site of a battle between Sherman and Johnston, the old adversaries, who came to terms after the war. Sherman’s death inadvertently leading to Johnston’s death.
Like my own Billings, Montana, these two place names—Dallas, Bentonville, NC— serve to stabilize what the speaker knows (and remind as to what she’s been reading/thinking about), but also to unveil mystery. Place names contain the unknown as much as what’s known, what’s stable.