My friends didn’t name their third child
until they got to know him, far better
I think than parents naming children
from a Bible or a daydream or a relative
who died an untimely death, or worse
after themselves, a sad and selfish act.
But unless they planned to give him
an Indian name like “Weeps at Daybreak”
or “North Facing Duck” or one of those
celebrity child names designed to ruin
a perfectly good noun like Apple or Sailor,
I didn’t understand how they’d recognize the word
when the stork brought it to their door.
But I liked the thought of this boy
gazing at the world without concepts
as newborns do, yet somehow in a purer
state of suspension, which I try to attain
each morning in meditation, counting
breaths until I’ve forgotten my name.
When I went to see the nameless boy
his sister, Maya, named for a Russian skater,
told me she was a snow faerie
and I told her I was a polar bear
and she said she was the queen of the moon
and I said I was the boss of Canada
and she said YOU’RE JUST DOUG!
A triple spondee so gorgeously executed
I felt strangely honored and aptly named.
My first name seems to go with every girl I’ve met
or might—Doug and Margie, Doug and Mary,
Janet and Doug—while Goetsch goes with none.
Some girls in college decided to call me Doug Wonderful,
perhaps to tell themselves there was a Mr. Right.
Are you really Doug Wonderful? said Wendy
as she took off her clothes. There was a time
I entertained changing my name to Gatsby,
though how to avoid the diabolical caesura:
DougGatsby? Any name but mine
for a poet, which sounds like a clerk.
When a writing student put me in a list
of those he saw on higher mountain slopes—
Auden, Bishop, Lowell, Kinnell, and Goetsch—
he didn’t insult me, but my name did.
“Darkness, my name is Denis Johnson,”
said Denis Johnson in a poem and the darkness
said, “That’s good, as long as you’re not
Douglas Goetsch.” “Who the fuck is he?” said
Denis Johnson, and they had a good laugh.
Even if I were a rebel in history
I don’t think I’d make the litany
in William Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”—
after Connelly, McDonough and McBride
who wants to visit the slum of Goetsch?
I’ve always thought it a loving habit of family
to remind you of who exactly you are
lest you forget and shame the clan, as in
Sophie close your legs you’re a Baumgarten.
Emerging from the courthouse a man
says to his boy, You are Barry Alan Feinberg
and don’t you forget it! The Jewish names,
so desperately vacated by stage performers,
seem to contain extra charm when said with pride,
as in a Philip Levine poem, or the ad slogan:
With a name like Smucker’s it has to be good.
And how can we not love demands for justice
based solely on the fact you have a name
pronounceable by your outraged friend—
They can’t do that to you you’re Douglas Goetsch!
and suddenly you swell with pride
and see his point, as I once tried
to convey to Harvard University, concluding
a recommendation with the sentence,
We’re talking about Sara Cohen, and what
do you know they took her early.
Amazing how a name fits a person
over the course of a lifetime, a baby-faced
word like Billy or Tillie or Kate
tags along from the schoolyard to the altar
to the arthritis clinic, a Jamie or Becky
or Candy hardening with the years.
Type your name into Google and you’ll find
a death notice for it. If you ever want
to jettison your name, start by avoiding reunions—
because whatever they called you, they were wrong:
the name they stole your lunch money from,
the name they scribbled on the bathroom stall,
the name the fat girl wrote on the board, dotting
the i’s with hearts, crossing the t’s with arrows,
the full name on your birth certificate
with which your mother summoned you downstairs
and which the young ladies of Italy would later
mangle in their beautiful mouths and you didn’t
dare correct them—not Sabrina, not Sabina,
not Francesca, not black-haired Rafaella.
Why is it I can’t remember your name?
You told me a moment ago, but I didn’t
tie it to anything and now it’s sailed
out to sea, so I wait around all night
to hear it said again, perhaps by you,
and if I’m exposed does it mean we’re through?
People call me Greg all the time and I forgive them.
It’s a decent name and at least they gave it a shot.
How could I possibly be a Nancy? said a woman
I thought I knew. Seriously: what
about me could be construed as Nancy?
When I called Pauline Paula she said,
Paula? Do I look fat? For one night
I worked at a restaurant where the entire
wait staff was gay and named Helen.
Don’t worry, said one, with a toss of his hair,
you’ll soon be Helen too. Up until then
every Helen I knew was stoic, Asian or old,
though I suppose the crew took comfort
in her syllables, hitting hard on “Hell”
then rounding its corner. Hell
is thinking up what to say to your lover
after calling out the wrong woman’s name.
What I needed from my mother was not a name,
just a counting of the fingers and the toes
and one other thing: to stay in her gaze forever
as she gazed at me then. My grandmother
wanted a girl, and if she’d gotten her wish
what name would I have worn all these years,
worn like a nightgown slipped into and out
of as easily as Douglas—hear it slide?
I could ‘a been a Christina, said Marlon Brando,
perhaps the most perfectly named individual ever,
alongside Joe Namath, Janis Joplin, Harry Truman,
Judy Garland, and a student of mine named Jessica Pacifico.
I was the English teacher who got to ask a girl
named Mary Rose if a rose by any other name
would really smell as sweet? Yes, she answered,
because in her opinion Romeo was a hottie.
I said, What about Nigel?
‘Wherefore art thou Nigel?’ That’s who.
I’d still date him.
Not a problem.
Biff? Irving? How about Fenster?
Yes, said Mary Rose, Yes, until I said
Hitler—which stunned us all to silence.
In the group home I taught a class of seven girls
named Asia: Starasia, Sha Asia, Shatasia, Shaquasia,
Quanasia, Tarasia, and just plain Asia.
In the jail school My God appeared at the door—
that’s what it said on the printout.
I asked My God if he had a nickname—Nope—
then sat the kid next to Jesus the rapist.
You can’t, for names, beat a racehorse—
Foolish Pleasure, Spectacular Bid, Funnycide,
Cardigan Bay, Carry Back, Skip in Place,
Wooda Shooda Kooda, Stevie Wonderboy.
What is it about the paddock or the track
that turns breeders and owners into poets
if only for a word or two between cigar chomps?
Or do they just obey what their pig-tailed daughters
whisper in their ears, Oh Daddy please
call him Firestreak, Spiderback, Rocket Wrangler,
Alysheba, Mistral Sky, Whirlaway!
Or maybe it’s their julep-sipping, silk-dress
mistresses who coax the names from them …
Lady Van Gogh, Royal Infatuation, Casual Lies,
Tom Fool, Party Jones, Blondeinamotel,
Ya Late Maite, Whosleavingwho, You Don’t Know Jack.
But the horses have to know there’s hope
built into their names when they
round the final turn into the home stretch,
a hundred thousand voices screaming
Go Man Go! Holy Bull! Buckpasser!
C’mon Johnny Dial! Down the Brick!
Doncha Dare! Do Good! Look Busy!
Expectamiracle neck and neck with Slow Joe Doyle
but Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine!
Are we ever more consumed with a word
than when we first approach a city
such as London, Lisbon, Dublin,
Geneva, Jakarta, Vienna? Did the founders
know the poetic freight those syllables would carry
when they arrived on horseback or the deck of a ship
exhausted and dreamy to lift a name from the mist
in their brain for the vista they beheld—
Casablanca, Jerusalem, Shanghai,
Nairobi, Istanbul, Timbuktu?
Even American cities are loaded with birdsong:
Chicago, Atlanta, Winston-Salem,
Boston, Baltimore, Albuquerque.
Can you think of a better sound than Cincinnati,
unless it’s Philadelphia? The hard-edged
Akron, Trenton, Duluth, Detroit, Vegas,
take their rightful places, along with the comic
Milwaukee, Sheboygen, Boise, Wala Wala,
Hoboken, Weehauken, and the irrepressible Cleveland,
a word to add humor to any sentence, as in
I got a wife in Cleveland and she hates my guts.
And yet, driving Pennsylvania, who isn’t dumbstruck
by the unsavory names of its towns—
Blandon, Bloserville, Scotrum, Scranton—
as if some dark cloud of nomenclature
had descended on Hecktown, Butztown,
Brunnerville, Loyalslock, Lickdale?
Could this have been the work of the Amish
taking refuse linguistically as they do in clothing
drab and ugly, shunning all worldly interest
in Lurgen, Blain, Mertzville, Blanchland—
renaming the new land for a gnawing sadness
they hoped to dispel in Snedekerville?
Is there any doubt the citizens of Intercourse,
Blueball, Letitz, Bird-In-Hand have some explaining
to do to their children at inappropriate ages?
Growing up I rode my gold Schwinn
on the spiritless grid of suburban dystopia
within the confines of the “M” section,
past stick trees newly planted in farmland
with no great oak or elm or beech
to lend a street a landmark, no storied maples
on Mapleshade Lane, no hill on Mosshill Place,
Millstream Lane running flat and dry
into Millbrook Drive. That’s what happens
when you move people into potato fields
and name the roads as fast as you roll down asphalt
in sheetrock towns that sound like soap opera fictions:
Valley Stream, Lake Grove, Floral Park.
Nobody was baptized in Wading River.
I never threw a stone in Stonybrook.
It takes a prophet to make a true name,
which is why young Robert Zimmerman
was right to re-call himself, and if you’re not
inspired you should at least wait a while
as my friends did with their third child,
steering past Michael and Brandon, Kyle and Cody,
Justin and Tyler and Ryan, landing on Dylan,
38th on the list of U.S. names for boys that year
but I never asked how they decided,
if he spit on his bib and they read it like tea leaves,
or just watched the changing weather on his face
as they turned the radio dial, but who doesn’t
arrive sooner or later, tired and broken
to “Visions of Johanna,” “Tangled Up in Blue,”
“Blind Willie McTell”? Bob Dylan first tried
calling himself Elston Gunn, Jack Fate
and almost went with Robert Allen,
but he liked the sound of Dylan
because, he said, the letter D came on stronger.
And if the Welsh poet didn’t drink himself
to death on Hudson Street he might have
hung around to hear folk lyrics to lift him up,
rock lines to knock him down and leave him
in the rising dust. As for my friends’ boy,
he’s ten now, the smallest kid in Pop Warner Football.
He roots with his life and his death
for the New York Mets, knows more
about the Revolutionary War than his parents,
and if something better ever came out of Brookfield,
Connecticut, I don’t know about it.
Doug, write a poem about me,
said Dylan Goldweit Denton, and I did.
“Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine” quotes Chick Anderson’s racetrack call of the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
The line, “I got a wife in Cleveland and she hates my guts” quotes the song “Born Too Late” by Steve Forbert.
—from Rattle #30, Winter 2009
Douglas Goetsch: “‘Nameless Boy’ is one of those poems that contains its occasion: my friends Arthur and Lisa actually did refrain from naming their third child for a few weeks, in order to get to know him first. I’ve always considered this a remarkable act of parenting—and often wondered what it would be like if we all had parents who respected our individuality so profoundly from the very beginning. When I wrote the poem I was on a writing retreat in Delaware with my friend Peter Murphy. I didn’t know what I’d write there until I got a call from Arthur, who was driving his boy to Washington to see the Mets play the Nationals. ‘Dylan wants you to write a poem about him,’ Arthur said, and so I did.” (website)