Onomastics & the Falling Snow Poem
The name and the spirit are inseparable.
And most everything has a name except the falling snow,
By which I mean each flake, each one different,
As one spirit is different from another, and close up,
Under a microscope, crystalline, like a thing made
By a master watchmaker with a motor the size
Of a fingernail and an awl as fine as a hair.
Sillier men than I have tried to name the flakes of snow
While standing hatless at a bus stop. From where comes
This human urge to name each thing? Each man
And each woman, as though we’re not all the same
Thing repeated endlessly: the human race.
Did you know that among the ancient Hebrew tribes
Children were given two names at birth,
One sacred, one profane? The child wasn’t told
The sacred one. So he walked around with two names,
One by which to be called in from the sheepfold
And the other intricate, mysterious, useless, like the snow.
And in Norway, circa early twentieth century,
There were so few hereditary names to pass down
Everyone must have thought everyone else a cousin. Maybe
That’s why they’re so polite, so orderly. That’s why,
If it’s snowing in Oslo, there will always be
A helpful soul standing beside you to offer space
The size of an umbrella while waiting for the bus.
In America a name means nothing—a marker
To be called in, a convenience. You can look up an old, lost
Acquaintance in a phone directory while passing through
A city, but until you call him up he’s only the name
Without the spirit. And his name won’t tell us anything
About what he does with his days: Mr. Weaver at his loom,
Mr. Lavender who makes soap; or how he looks:
Señor Roja for the color of his beard, or Mr. Gross,
The fat man who stood in line waiting for
The greedy minions of the fanatic Empress Maria Theresa
To take his money and bestow upon him a name
To be passed down to fat and skinny children alike.
Or, if he were even poorer, and as a mean joke,
To be called the German equivalent of Grease, or Monkey
Weed or Do Not Borrow From or Gallows Rope.
In Russia, in 1802, to raise an army, Czar Alexander
Sent out a ukase ordering each Jew to take a last name—
Like writing a poem, mind-sprung
And wholly inspired on first draft, then inscribing it
On the forehead of a neighbor, each one befitting:
Isaac, He Who Laughs, or Mazal, Lucky Man,
Or Trubnic for Chimney Sweep or Soroka The Magpie,
Meaning The Gossip. And babies in those days
Were sometimes given ugly names to turn aside
The assiduous, bureaucratic Angel of Death;
Or, in illness, a child was renamed to befuddle
The same angel coming down with his empty sack
To collect for God’s heavens. But naming the snow,
Each flake, each deliquescing cryptic coat of arms,
That would be a game for only the most inventive,
Hopeless man. For after all, the snowflakes
Are the soon-to-be-dead, those who float awhile
Then fall and, merging, pile up like corpses
On some northern battlefield, and there melt, flow
Down as water to the river that has one name only.
It so happens it’s snowing where I’m standing now
At a bus stop in Oslo, between one moment and the next,
Feeling nostalgic, homesick, trying to remember the names
Of everyone I’ve ever known. Hopeless, of course,
So to name is also duty, and is also good.
So it worries me that my son, who is more like me
Than I care to think about, and who bears my last name,
Could recite the names of each child
In his kindergarten class after only one week
Of sitting with his hands folded on his desk.
He wasn’t praying, he told me. He was waiting
For the names to sink in so one morning he could say,
Suddenly, to each one, Hi, because it’s good
To be remembered by anyone, for the name and the spirit
Are inseparable. By the time we are old we have known
So many people by name we could baptize each flake
Of falling snow while waiting for a bus.
They grew away from me. They became snow,
Fuzzy at this distance, just beyond my reach,
Waiting to be called upon again.
first published in The Gettysburg Review, vol. 11, no. 4, Winter 1998
also from This Particular Eternity