The Phenomenology of the Name


In the beginning was your name, which we gave you to make you

a part of us and apart from us.

As with our DNA, we fixed our own names in you; from your name

you derived your tag, CONE:

You, consonantally slurred; a graff writer’s nom de paint stick,

nom de Krylon, de Rusto Fat Cap.

You, ice cream’s cornucopia, woman’s breast, traffic barrier, dunce hat,

a spray nozzle, the bowl of a bong.

You, who exist in the dimensional world, a piece of solid geometry,

steady on its base, or a hollow funnel.

And you, an experiment in phenomenology. I parsed and puzzled it.

You explained, it’s C-plus-ONE:

your first initial plus you, unique. Or rather, The One. See One.

See me. Or, don’t see me.


When you were home, how well could I see you? My body radio-tuned

to your foot-thud up the stairs,

the floor-creak overhead, your desk chair’s wheel-rumble, speakers’

gangsta-thump, I felt your presence

on my skin, but you were a blur to me. I may have been blind, but not

uninformed. Our doors were open to you.

I had my own sneaking-around girlhood to dwell on. I paid attention.

Too much attention, you complained.

Hyper-vigilance, a shrink explained. But we believed that at sixteen

we couldn’t keep you

safe at home, or kick you out, yet. I searched your room, “cleaning” it.

That first experiment

in phenomenology quickly yielded up your stash, but spooked me less

than the vodka on your breath.


In the parable, as the father sat waiting for his prodigal boy to return

to him, the mother surely

did not sequester herself in the tent, carving a hole in her heart.

You were avoiding home, my son,

and so began my hunt for you like an animal, to know who you were,

inhaling and tasting. Not just looking

but seeing. Like a cat attuned to the quick odd movement, a dog

nosing the trail, a dancer

stepping to her partner, I was a mother vibrating through the city

to your telling absence.

It’s not enough to say if only I could give my angels charge over you

 lest you dash your foot against a stone.

I had to find you. You’ve left your marks, first on my body, my heart,

and now on the city itself.


I leashed the dog and walked the streets looking for your tag. Intentionality

 proceeds from the subject, said Heidegger.

I (the subject) walked and looked (predicate) for you (object), or rather,

for your tags.

If my intention was to see you, I must let you manifest yourself to me.

Let that which shows itself be seen

 from itself in the very way in which it shows itself, from itself, he said.

And now I saw you all around me;

your tags on walls, the sidewalk, lightposts, curbs I’d never noticed.

Like Hansel’s pebbles, they wended

in a line from home, down the streets and alleys of Dupont Circle,

as if to tease me, to show me the way

you went, what you could do without me, how I could not stop you.

Or were they to lead you home?


Calculus is Latin for pebble, a chip off the old block, tumbled over

time and distance.

On the gridded sidewalk each step is an integer. Step on a crack,

 break your mother’s back. Step,

drop a pebble. Step, here was the calculus of you moving away

from me, each of us an entity, yet linked.

Here was your motion and rate of change, and here my continuity,

and this my paradox:

if every step I took brought me halfway to you, how many steps

must I take to reach you?

What was my limit, where we converged as a function of time?

The textbook says for any fixed

standard of accuracy, you can always be sure to be within that limit,

 provided you have gone far enough.


The height of a child as he grows over time is a continuous function.

It was I, the notcher and the dater

on the doorframe through which you came and went; I, the datakeeper,

demonstrator (see how tall?)

for whom the top notch would become a reach, a stretch; I through

whom you came, then went,

who built my back and biceps lifting you, tickled I’m coming to get you!

I developed a taste for a burden,

for your arms ever-reaching. Now my arms looped your waist,

your chin on my head.

I was reduced to beck and call at the door. The graph of a continuous

function can be drawn

without lifting the chalk from the board. Did you think that you

and I were through?


All around me the family crouched low to the ground, engaged

in evasive maneuvers.

Your father hid at work. Your sister went outbacking beyond our reach

with some Brits and a German,

counting the flies at Ayers’ Rock, the crocs in the ditches, koalas

in the ghost gums—the miles

an irksome blur. Every few months she’d call home breezily, telling us

her new phenomenology:

songlines across the red desert, the Dreaming that names the world

into being, a secret campsite

she’d stumbled upon, its occult stone paintings. Into the phone I poured

my own songline: But where are you?

If you died, where would I begin to look for you? A sniper circled D.C.

We waited to be mugged by death.


Terror telegraphs itself. That first night you stayed away from home

the dog placed his moist jowls

on the bed as I roiled in the dark. The silent house was sucking

all the oxygen, and I lay gasping.

I had been calling your cellphone, stabbing a tattoo to conjure you,

to call you back to quarters.

Once, you answered. My voice left my throat and flew to my limits,

transmuting in the air into a fist

to hold you there. You disconnected me. Now, my hearing was like

the dog’s, agitating at the door before

the key is in, listening for its opening motif, its closing a bomb

I would have welcomed.

Terror leads to terror, now I know. But that…that was true vertigo,

to feel in motion even when at rest.


You moved through streets of men, a boy earning his manhood making

his display of risk. Making his name.

To make your name, you crafted a cipher in the hand of a non-entity,

a zero, a ghost among us dropping traces.

A vandal’s hand to cops, to me. To you, a code for the cognoscenti,

your fellow prodigals, squanderers

who roamed lamplit streets, listening to the city’s stone walls call



your own clatter babble:

ch-ka ch-ka ch-ka…pfsss pfsssss…exposing your back to the street

as if in private, pissing.

You vaporized and were reborn in a mist of adrenaline and paint fumes,

as No One; NONE; N-plus-ONE…

[in Southern Poetry Review Vol. 50/1]


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