Lantern Review | Issue 6

Matthew Olzmann

The Gallery of Naming Rituals

Consider Adam rolling through the garden, sentenced
to name the animals. Hello frog.
Hello wolf. Hello marmoset and three-toed sloth.
At first: what joy! What beauty!
Hello ring-tailed lemur.
Hello star-nosed mole, zebra and banana slug.
How he breezed back and forth,
between the north and south gates, pointing
and naming, codifying and organizing.
Hello, cotton rat and prairie racerunner.
Good morning, blue whale and tiger prawn.
Such musical beasts—with their trumpet throats
and xylophone scales, their accordion lungs
and kick drum muscles—he’d announce the names
and the names would sing back.
Hello red-bellied newt.
Pleased to meet you, antelope and dragonfly.

But the work was impossible, tedious
and more exhausting by the day.
Who can notice the shift from a thing with a thousand legs
to a thing with a thousand and one?
(There’s a difference, and each difference needs a name.)
Frequently, he ran out of names, and entire families
of dinosaurs slid from the globe
before he could tell them what they were.
Goodbye triceratops. Goodbye stegosaurus.
He was told to be more specific; he was told
to be faster and more exact. Word came down
from the boss that simply calling everything
with four legs and whiskers a “cat”
would no longer suffice: Hello clouded leopard;
hello bobcat. Hello Egyptian Mau and Kurilian Bobtail.

I can hardly imagine how he suffered.
I, who can barely keep my checkbook in order,
who can hardly tell the difference
between a Tuesday and Wednesday,
between a new friend and someone
who might leave my body crumpled in an alley,
my wallet missing and my name unknown.
I am not an organized person.
How do you name something when you constantly
run out of words? When you don't know the difference
between the poisonous and the tender?
When you can't remember the variations
of every tooth and claw?

Imagine the ache in Adam's head as he struggled to hold
his library catalogues of skins and furs,
his Audubon indexes of talons and feathers,
to hold all of this, everything, burning, in his skull.

Who wouldn’t long for some kind of release?
Who wouldn’t plot an exit strategy,
as he, without sleep, kept pointing and naming,
pointing and naming, each time hoping
that this one was the last one?
But there is no end, he discovered.
Not even when he named the trails of ants
that latticed themselves over and under
the iron fence posts, or the worm
in the fruit, or the thing that crawled toward him,
on its belly, forever, anonymous and kind.