August 1999

Ben Howard

Ben Howard   Ben Howard's latest book is Midcentury (Salmon in 1997).  His poetry has been published in Poetry, Chelsea, Shenandoah, Sewanee Review, and Seneca Review.  An essay entitled, "Humane Letters" appears in the Iowa Review

A Given Name    Click to hear in real audio


Maquoketa. I think I heard it first
out of my father's mouth. A quiet town
in Iowa, it left me unimpressed
but for its name, which like a pleasing tune
heard on the radio, installed itself,
its savor growing stronger through the years.
Speaking Maquoketa now, I find myself
removed to where I lopped on wooden stairs
and fed fresh raisins to a cocker spaniel,
my mother vacuuming, my sister building
dolls from hollyhocks. Each syllable
could be a raisin, too, and each unfolding
consonant a sweetness on the tongue,
the name itself an elegiac song.


Des Moines. Clinton. Davenport. Dubuque.      
As easily as breathing, I intone
those lasting names, as though no loss or heartbreak
had ever happened. Closed and long since gone,
Van Allen's grand department store in Clinton
has left its Louis Sullivan facade,
a convoluted signature in stone.
Part-Celtic, part-Corinthian, its dated
elegance recalls a finer time,
when cities spoke from throbbing civic hearts.
Today the shoppers, stocking home and farm,
avail themselves of bargains at the K-Marts,
forsaking Penney's and Montgomery Ward's.
What stays are names and opulent facades.


I hear them in the morning and the evening,
as though they signified familiar rooms
in musty public buildings: Bath, Corning,
Binghamton, Elmira. 
Foreign names
at first, they've lost their colors.  Twenty years
of hearing then have made their flavors dull,
their structures no more striking than the spires
of friendly churches, charitable and local.
But will there come a time when I endow
those common places with the same affection
as now I sometimes feel when Iowa
comes up in reverie or conversation
or makes its way, as patiently as bees,
into the papers or the evening news?


I can't call back the years nor legislate,
by any act of naming, my return
to that remembered, half-imagined state
when name and home and family were one.
Nor can I make of Iowa a shelter
impervious to fashion or assault,
nor build of empty properties an altar,
nor carve from words a temporal retreat.
And yet I do just that, in speech and thought,
as though the names Maquoketa and Clinton,
uttered in reverence, could muster out
the tutelary spirit of a town
and by the glory of a given name
bestow the passing credence of a dream. 



Ben Howard: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue EightThe Cortland Review