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]



All spring I tried to sleep on the berm that split the bed.
I was ditched on the verge.

When I cracked the window
to admit cold air,
I heard the holly rustle
with a flock of robins
gorging on the berries.
Red berries in the red breast.

I went to clean the birdhouse
of its square nest.

Above, I saw the pileated’s crest.
He was hard at work
socking the rotten stump with his whole head.

in Poet Lore 107, 1/2


You are belt-conveyed to your gate
in a terminal’s ever-light, ever-cool,
rolling your baggage behind you
whether departing or returning,
ever following the way forward,
ever carried forward like long division
with a multiplying remainder,
when overhead, as though through a veil,
a woman’s voice speaks to you,
a voice locked to the spot where
no one stays but her, but where
you are brought to hear the truth,
Caution, the moving sidewalk is ending,
before moving on, and she’ll say it again
and again to you or whoever will listen,
Caution, the moving sidewalk is ending,
in the voice of care, of a patient woman
willing to repeat herself for your own good,
as announcing angel of a caring god
who presumes you are blind or distracted
and cannot see that the moving sidewalk
is about to end.

in Poet Lore 107, 1/2


Away to me, he said and she would;
come bye, and she flanked left.
She sought and brought home
the scattered fold:
Rambouliets, Montadales, Cheviots,
the flighty hill sheep;
heavy Suffolks, Hampshires, Dorsets
that stand their ground and fight.
Thrifty, harrying but keeping back
balanced between attack and unconcern,
she awaited his low whistle.

Beyond his cue, set out on a gather,
she ghosted through the brush
and haunted the flock he could not see
but for snagged wool, the bleating of lambs.
She scooted, head down, tail down,
grabbed a hock, nipped a nose
until they believed in her
as she believed in him.
Over the brow of the hill the flock flowed,
recollected to him, the pen and its gate.

Only work makes sense and profit.
He saw how he’d taught her
when he found her puppies,
cold, nested in a ditch.

–in The Southern Poetry Review 48:2


after Leo Friedlander’s sculptures on Arlington Memorial Bridge,
“The Arts of War,” “Sacrifice,” and “Valor” (1951)

The breasts of a goddess are coned, capped, coppered,
her pects like fuselages, Vesuviuses stoppered—
or Grand Tetons, their river rocks washed
with a thousand babbles, a wash of tears.
There’s no mistaking her for a god.

And we’ve seen that goddess: her stony breasts flashed
to passing traffic, balance-scales or spears
in hand. We’ve stood before her, awed

and disconnected, or rather we’ve burned
to connect to what’s contained, cupped, bucketed:
the breasts a thousand mouths have suckled at

and sucked to stone. Milk … from a stone:
that is the miracle of a thousand loaves turned
into a goddess’s self, pervasive and alone.

in Beltway Poetry Quarterly

Doing the Laundry

These days it’s no longer
the mano a mano ordeal it was
to wrestle clean
our overt smirches.
Now from the heart of the house
comes the effortful groan
of the washer’s mechanical
hamfists, heaving a rhythm,
sloshing a load of lights
back and forth and back…
Far better it
than my own pink knuckles
swashing a washboard
with caustic suds,
elbows deep in the roiling basin.
Or worse, to stand
hunched by the riverbank
with a stick and a rock.
Could love or money
ever compensate such mule work?
Yet such work continues–
something must be done
with those secretions and spillages,
the tell-tale sin-markings.
Forensics of the laundry room,
sure as swirled tea leaves
or a spotty X-ray,
give access to the intimate.
Like this spot, here.
Should I try the bleach?
Or should we talk about it?

from Southern Poetry Review 46:1

Ring Effect

You tested fate and placed the golden ring
around my finger, where it has been
for twenty years, wearing itself in.
My palm’s uniquely callused, blistering
quickly while I work. My hand’s tipped off
to its presence, bracing for the bite
of metal in a handhold, for the tightness
on the knuckle as the ring slips off
and on, its infinitesimal added weight
creating a disturbance in the play
of my hand, the swing of my arm. The way
I move has changed, assimilated.
Now, remove the ring, my hand feels bare;
remove the hand, the arm, the ring’s still there.

in The Hudson Review Autumn 2007

The Oldest Daughter and the Youngest Son

Must, must, must chants the oldest daughter:
Miss Bossyboots, Miss Checks-for-Dust,
manager of disarray and sheepdog to the litter–
all for the the accident of being born first.

Born first and not a boy; elected mini-mom,
she’ll need to find a mini-dad to compensate
the want of firstborn son. That’s at a minimum.
Then there’s all that service to dispense

under the notion that a motor with no load
burns out, and that the God of Order wants
his human sacrifice. She’ll need no goading.
Try telling her to stop, to let it go. She can’t.

She’ll find a youngest son to boss around,
as I found you, my love. So are we bound.

Oh please, please, please….
Those “oldests” get it all, as well you know:
the love, the house, the land…and me
to do for. (Or make me doubt they will.)
Their job: to teach and tease.

Mine: to want, and make them want to give;
to break the cup; they, to fix the spill
again, while I go take a nap…or go
do something more important. For them to see.
And then to praise me. And then forgive.

They serve because they know I’m not like them.
(My worn-out parents gave in, too).
I’m their chance to get it right, their test.
I am the prodigal you love the best.

in Shenandoah 57/1 Spring 2007