Identity is fluid. Announce your name to an empty room and feel the word take on its own life, gathering momentum as it echoes back to you. You are not the name, and yet you are only the name. You can say it until it means nothing, until it is just a collection of sounds. Keep going and it becomes a mantra, a spell. It’s like that moment in a ghazal when you write your own name. The name is a mask. Words are shells waiting to be inhabited.
Larry Levis, in “Though His Name Is Infinite My Father Is Asleep,” writes that his father “went into his name, / He went into his name, & into / The way two words keep house,/ Each syllable swept clean / Again when you say them.” There is a formidable absence filling the names of the dead. A headstone is a mask of granite and a handful of letters that “once meant a whole world.” Levis writes that his father might have announced the act of dying as: “I’m going into my name.” The name, as the first thing we’re given when we’re born, also signals our mortality. Those “two words” are what will remain after we are gone.
I write a lot about transformation, both in Gog and in my manuscript-in-progress, Anti-Faun. I’d like to know how to transcend the past, how to tap into the part of the self that lies beyond a name, beyond our memories or experiences, that part of the self that seems to wink when you call out your own name saying: I am infinite; I am the air; I am the fire burning within the letters. I tell myself that no one can hurt me, has ever hurt me, because I’m made of something indestructible; I belong to the earth and sky. As Anti-Faun evolves, it continues to confound me. The main character embodies the voices of many different creatures, including trees, water, fire, animals, and insects. I use multiple mediums—poetry, prose, paintings, musical compositions—so that I might get closer to a transcendent space.
Thanks to a workshop by Linda Hall, a local Tallahassee artist and mask-maker, I’ve created the mask of a bear. The bear is a very important figure for me. When I was a girl, I was swimming far out into Lake Superior. My sadness was so great, it was like a physical wound. The water seemed very inviting, and if I kept swimming I would be pulled down into the cold. I wanted to be a gleaming pearl among the shipwrecks and agates. Then I saw a black bear on the shore. I felt pulled in by that bear, somehow saved by it. Although I know that’s impossible, you know, that a bear would give a shit about me or if it did, that it could change me at all. Yet, I felt that it woke me up. I’ve dreamt about it ever since. A blue, blue dream. I swim through an underwater tunnel, and the bear is standing on her hind legs. Her chest is hanging open and inside is a glowing blue heart. When I touch the heart, she swipes me in the face. I wake up. I die. I wake up. I die.
When I die, I’m new, transformed. Even in my work, I practice dying so that I can live. I’m not so sad anymore. My body is ink and paper, and yet it’s the fire and mystery inside my name. The energy that fills the mask is only limited by my imagination, by what I allow to become attached to the letters.