“The Names” by Bill Collins
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night./A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,/And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,/I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,/Then Baxter and Calabro,/Davis and Eberling, names falling into place/As droplets fell through the dark./Names printed on the ceiling of the night./Names slipping around a watery bend./Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream./In the morning, I walked out barefoot/Among thousands of flowers/Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,/And each had a name –/Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal/Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins./Names written in the air/And stitched into the cloth of the day./A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox./Monogram on a torn shirt,/I see you spelled out on storefront windows/And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city./I say the syllables as I turn a corner –/Kelly and Lee,/Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor./When I peer into the woods,/I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden/As in a puzzle concocted for children./Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,/Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,/Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple./Names written in the pale sky./Names rising in the updraft amid buildings./Names silent in stone/Or cried out behind a door./Names blown over the earth and out to sea./In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows./A boy on a lake lifts his oars./A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,/And the names are outlined on the rose clouds –/Vanacore and Wallace,/(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)/Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z./Names etched on the head of a pin./One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel./A blue name needled into the skin./Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,/The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son./Alphabet of names in a green field./Names in the small tracks of birds./Names lifted from a hat/Or balanced on the tip of the tongue./Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory./So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
This poem always gives me chills. We read it each year in my class to start off our poetry unit. I am always amazed at how little my students know about an event that in many ways, gave definition to my generation. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years. I’d share a story about how I spent that day, but to be honest all I remember is feeling overwhelmed and sick to my stomach while sitting in complete silence in my history class as we all watched footage of the second plane hitting the twin towers. I imagine that September 11th will be to my generation, what the assassination of JFK was to my mother’s.