Saturday, May 12, 2012

Name Post: The Name Flows From the Naming

 Near Queen's on a warm day last week.

                 One of the many things I’ve learned this year is to be unafraid to ask. This usually means being unself-conscious enough to ask for directions (and ask for them often), restaurant recommendations, empty couches to sleep on, and interviews about names. In one of my earlier posts about Irish names, I mentioned one of my favorite poets, Medbh McGuckian, and the story behind her name that I found online. After some more Google research (stalking) in Ireland, I learned that she happened to be teaching at Queen’s University in Belfast. On an afternoon when I was feeling particularly bold, I sent her an e-mail asking if we could meet.
                On a rainy morning last week, my plan came to light. I admitted to her in my e-mail that I was a bit star struck. I was introduced to Medbh’s work by my friend, Hadley, who gave me her book of selected poems at the beginning of our last year of college. Medbh McGuckian has remained in my top three (if not top) favorite poets since. (For the record, Hadley, I told Medbh you were jealous and she said you could meet her when—not if—you come to Belfast).  
                I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet Medbh, and  also thrilled to learn she was an exceptionally warm and honest person. I asked her about her own name stories, growing up in Belfast, and how she explores the same questions of Northern Irish identity that I’m looking at within her work. A lot of her poetry deals with the conflict here. In an interview with Elin Holmsten that she gave in 2004 she said, “All through the Troubles, you kept the front door locked, and if you were in a middle-class area, you’d have an inner door and you’d keep them both locked all the time, even if you were in the house. When the cease-fire happened and the peace process began, we very slowly began to open the outer door, but still keep the inner door locked. That’s the stage we’re at in Northern Ireland: one door locked, and the other one tentatively open with a little gap.” 

Older stretch of downtown Belfast. 
                She told me about how the names within her own family relate to this tentativeness in  Northern Ireland. She believes her mother chose neutral names (names that wouldn’t identify them as Catholic or Protestant) for her six children.  Her oldest brother was named Dennis, for example, which is found in both Catholic and Protestant families. Her older sister was named Dorothy, Medbh suspects after The Wizard of Oz and also after her father’s sister who had recently died. Medbh told me she had written a few poems in which she addresses her own personal history as well as aspects of her name. She told me about Small View of Spire and River which she wrote while thinking about the rather painful and abrupt process of her birth. Her mother was on holiday when Medbh came early and she didn’t have time to make it to a hospital. The only person with her was a neighbor, and Medbh thinks her sudden early arrival has always affected her relationship with her mother. She thinks the name Maeve was not necessarily planned on ahead of time. 

                Maeve is the third out of six children and was baptized with the name Maeve Therese Philomena McCaughan.  The name Maeve is of Gaelic origin and was relatively uncommon at the time, but we talked about how there are many who define the name today; Queen Maeve of Irish lore (Medbh compared her to Lady Macbeth), Maeve as the name of Philip Larkin’s girlfriend, and the ubiquitous Maeve Binchy.  The name Therese was chosen after the Saint (I learned Therese and Teresa are actually different saints). Therese was known as “little flower” and perhaps because of their onomastic connection, Therese is the saint that Medbh has chosen to pray to throughout her life. The St. Therese church in Belfast is where Medbh got married and where her children were baptized.
                Medbh told me that she was given the last part of her name on a whim. At the time of her birth, mothers usually didn't attend baptisms. It was said that after giving birth women needed to be “churched”  before attending. That said, it was very important for the baptisms to happen quickly (there was the fear that the baby might die early on). Maeve’s grandmother took her to her baptism, and in the moment, decided that “Philomena” should be added to her name.  In the years that followed, Medbh has written a poem about her namesake entitled Celebration of the Name of St. Philomena. We went through this poem together, line by line.  Medbh explained Philomena means “lover of the moon” Philomena was never canonized but was recognized by three successive Popes. At her confirmation, Medbh added "Anne" to her name. It was right around the time Princess Anne was born, a fact which she loved as a child. She continues to follow Princess Anne’s life and career with an interest she thinks comes in part from sharing that name. 
                Medbh told me before she got married her surname was McCaughan, a name that’s somewhat loaded in Belfast. It clearly identifies her family as Irish Catholics and is also linked to an old tradition of “horse stealers.” When she was beginning to publish her work, she wanted a name that would be more ambiguous.  It was around this time that Seamus Heaney was Medbh’s teacher at Queens. Although she still went by Maeve then, he would sign his books to her as “Medbh.”  She’s still not sure where this came from, because it’s a misspelling or the original Irish “Medhbh” or “Maedhbh.”  She stuck with it though, and adopted her husband’s last name of McGuckian to publish her work under. (She told me she's not sure if she’d make the same decision to change her surname today). 

                Medbh thinks that her mother gave her six children names that could be rather ambiguous in Northern Ireland (Dennis, Dorothy, Maeve, Rosemary, John and Maria), but their upbringing was undecidedly Catholic. Her own children, who arguably have more Irish-sounding names (Liam, Hugh, Fergus and Emer), were sent to state schools, surrounded by mainly Protestant children. Her children were all born during the Troubles, and there was the belief that if they sent them to predominantly Protestant schools, it might help to bridge some of the divisions in Belfast. She took me through their names, one by one.

                Medbh’s son Liam was born on William Shakespeare’s birthday and the Irish version of William was chosen for him accordingly.  (Liam was also the name of a man who was important to Medbh and her mother). She told me that Liam (now 36) still hates his name. After his birth, Medbh’s husband John had some regrets about not calling their son John after him. He occasionally began to use John instead of Liam, and Medbh says a sort of dual identity formed. To this day, some people know him as John and others know him as Liam. 

Hugh Oisin
                Hugh was the name of Medbh’s father, a man she had a very close relationship with. She thought about using the Irish equivalent of Hugh, “Aodh,” because that name is in Yeats (“Yeats seems to be behind most of what I do,” she told me). Oisin is one of those Irish names I’ve been seeing all over the place but never knew how to pronounce (apparently it also depends where in Ireland you are). Here it sounds like “O-sheen.” 

Fergus Joseph Gregory
                Fergus was Medbh’s mother’s maiden name. She told me it’s a Pagan name that she wanted to pass on.  Joseph was chosen because Fergus was born on St. Joseph’s Day and Greogry was added at the last minute. Medbh told me at Fergus Joseph’s baptism, her husband burst into tears (“You’re probably beginning to see what a difficult man my husband is”, she told me). Her husband told her he thought this would be their last child and he had always wanted a child named Gregory, in honor of Gregory Peck. Medbh agreed, also realizing that numerically, it made sense that the third child would have three names (Liam has one and Hugh Oisin is two). She told me that since then she and Fergus met Gregory Peck in California. They learned that his own name is actually Eldred Gregory Peck. (“No wonder he goes by Gregory.”) Gregory Peck welcomed Fergus Joseph Gregory into the “Gregory Club” and Medbh thinks in a strange way, the addition of this name at Fergus’s baptism may have forseen their eventual meeting. In some ways, her Celebration of the Name of St. Philomena is a love letter to Gregory Peck. The “white winter tribute/up to the edge of your head’s/bestarred winter, into its continent”, is about honoring him from Ireland to America. 

Emer Mary Charlotte Rose
                Medbh told me that she had never expected to have any more children, but when Emer was born she knew what her name would be. There was a girl in Medbh’s class with beautiful long blond ringlets she had always been envious of.  (“That was who I wanted to be at that time in my life,” Medbh told me). The girl’s name was Emer and Medbh began to think it was the most beautiful name she’d ever heard. She also liked that all of her children’s names up to this point had been four letters and that Emer (or Eimear) was the wife of the legendary Irish hero Cuchulainn. (Side note to Americans: here Emer is pronounced Ee-mur, not “Em-er”). The Mary was after Medbh’s grandmother and mother in law, the Charlotte after Charlotte Bronte, and the Rose as a symbol of beauty and connection to nature. 

Royal Avenue, downtown

We talked about how so few names in Belfast (or in the world) are neutral. I asked her about names in translation and my own question about whether names can be translated. We talked about the power of names, how she feels she can channel certain energies from Queen Maeve, and even from Seamus Heaney because he is now a part of the name she writes with. We talked about how her son’s name may have been a sign that he would meet Gregory Peck. We talked about the role that names have played in conflict and the tragedy of names becoming bad words; how Seamus, Sean, and Paddy are used pejoratively in England, when they are names that are sacred to many people here.

 “Names summarize our identities,” she told me. She feels this way particularly as a writer. She told me Keats requested that “here lies one whose name was writ in water” be written on his tombstone. “Of course now his name is written in stone and gold,” she told me. “but at the time he felt like he would disappear.”  She told me sometimes she likes to think about how names go back to prehistory; that when people say the names “Alexander”, or “Cleopatra” for example, they’re conjuring up such strong, heroic stances.  She believes in the beauty of names, but also their strength. She thinks they possess a certain energy so that when you call out a name, you’re actually drawing on the energy of the people who have worn it.
                She made me a photocopy of Celebration of the Name of St. Philomena and I asked her to sign it. She called on the energy of all of our names.

I'm going to keep it forever. I'm still a little star struck. Thank you, Medbh.

For those of you unfamiliar with Medbh’s work, I suggest you get familiar, but in the meantime, I’ll post a few of my current favorites below. This first one could be about a lot of things, and one literary theorist makes the argument that this poem is best understood through the lens of Heidegger. We’re not going to go there.  I prefer to read it more literally, as a poem about self-concealing as other generations are moving forwards, often with the same names. 

The Self-Concealing

Now, now, words for it,
The eyelids of those eyes,
The eyes blue school,
Where school is the school of heaven.

To where could we step back 
From this destiny of denial
Whose fourfoldedness
Encircles the globe?

Not only through a ringing out
Of its voices,
But with the greatest difficulty
Can we hear the silent voice

Of this joining. The name flows
from the naming.
And more willingly
Beauty dwells on earth, but spares

Its appearing, as its ownmost self.
The earth replies by its own
Movement, the ray of light
That meets the newborn,

With the old saying of their togetherness.
Insofar as death comes, it vanishes,
And whether it comes from afar,
It is also a life. 

Some people think the next poem is about the process of Irish/English translation. It's also about names. 


The studied poverty of a moon roof,
The earthenware of diaries cooled by apple trees,
The apple tree that makes the whitest wash...

But I forget the names, remembering them wrongly
Where they touch upon another name,
A town in France like a woman’s Christian name.

My childhood is preserved as a nation’s history,
My favourite fairy tales the shells
Leased by the hermit crab.

I see my grandmother’s death as a piece of ice,
My mother’s slimness restored to her,
My own key slotted in the door –

Tricks you might guess from this unfastened button,
A pen mislaid, a word misread,
My hair coming down in the middle of a conversation.  


And this one I'm posting because it is too beautiful not to. 

She Which Is Not, He Which Is

An elm box without any shape inscribed
Like a tool in the closed vessel of the world;
I will be flat like a dream on both sides,
Or a road that makes one want to walk.

My words will be without words
Like a net hidden in a lake,
Their pale individual moisture
My eyes will not be the eyes of a poet
Whose voice is beyond death;
This face, these clothes, will be a field in autumn
And the following autumn, will be two sounds,
The second of which is deeper.

The sky for me on any one night
Will be the successive skies over the course
Of a year, for time that I love
Will have cut up and entered my body;
Time will have gathered the roots
Of my last spring, floating rather
Than anchored, and thrust them between
The two planes of my cheek and brow.

Even now, his lips are becoming
Narrower and bloodless, ever-searching,
Razor-like; unforgettable time,
During which I forget time, a new sort
Of time that descends so far down
Into me and still stays pure.

I imagine his house as a possible setting
For the harmony between one drop of water
And another, one wave and another wave,
Where the light accustoms one to light
And each occurrence is a touch.

When we pass through some darkness,
The waiting has pulled us.
Without the help of words, words take place.

Compared with this absence, weighed,
Diluted in time presence is abandonment,
Absence his manner of appearing,
As though one received from outside
The energy to accept the swept room
As much as the sweeping.

Though each instant of light
Wipes away a little of it
We shall not lose the way
In which things receive it:

Carry me who am death
Like a bowl of water
Filled to the brim
From one place to another.

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