I sit down to write this perilously close to my deadline and find myself engaged in a final act of what I think will be procrastination. YouTube offers me a new video by John Green. It is called, simply, Orlando. Over a black background, names in white text appear as they are spoken aloud. These are the names of those who died in the Pulse nightclub. There are forty-nine.
As I listen to the names, I recall other instances where, in the wake of tragedy, names have been read. I recall Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, speaking at the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and the reading of names at Ground Zero. And turning to my bookshelf, it strikes me how often the act of naming is the act of the poet; not only in the memorial acts of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Billy Collins’ “The Names”, but as the very reason of poetry: to make words point beyond themselves and conjure something real.
I cannot help but notice the stories palimpsested beneath these names. We see this most in the names that are passed down or given by convention. I fixate on the Juniors and the The Thirds whose names proudly declare ownership of lineage and tradition, and I notice how surnames are rooted in the places, occupations, and histories of those who carry them. These names point to a historical weight much larger than any word, and which we cannot truly know, just as the initials of undisclosed middle names remind us of the lacunae in our perceptions of the world, the stories we will neither read nor hear.
And out of these histories and the cultures that surround them grow the given names. Names conferred as gifts, given with some implicit belief in the concept of nomen est omen. In a poem, a metaphor is when we say two dissimilar things are alike in order to bring both things closer together. It works by establishing links between otherwise distant concepts. And so with names. If a child is called Faith or Angel, it is in the hope that they may be more faithful or angelic. Behind almost all names we find some etymological presence of virtue, status, or success. Names work as a metaphor, attempting to join a person with the attribute explicitly given and hoped for. A name is a fate.
But of course, these forty-nine names do not primarily serve as a metaphor or a means of constructing history. Rather, these names signify people. They contain, within their handful of syllables, every aspect of the person they name. And thus, in this usage, they function as metonymy: the poetic trope by which something is referred to as something to which it has a relation (such as saying ‘the crown’ to refer to ‘the monarchy’). When we utter a person’s name, it is a shorthand for how they look, what they enjoy, where they have lived – a shorthand for the entire person. We use this shorthand to call a person from absence to presence, to bring them into the room, and to unify their disparate, ineffable humanity.
Names combine every strand of an identity: the personal, the familial, and the cultural. In the face of an attack against an LGBT community and its space, we must remember that these names represent forty-nine identities fought for and defined in spite of the culture’s hegemonic force, forty-nine people whose stories must be louder than the massacre in Orlando, Orlando meaning “famous land”. If nomen est omen, let it be for the right reasons. Let it be because of the cultures, the communities, and the people who stand in defiance of the forces who would erase their names. Let us conjure them from absence. Conjure, from conjurare, “to swear together”, to act in unity. And may the first act of many be to speak their names aloud, to feel them in our bodies and the air, and from that foundation we go on to poiein, from the Greek, “to create”. These stories will never be finished. Speak them with me:
Stanley Almodovar III, Amanda Alvear, Oscar A Aracena-Montero, Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, Antonio Davon Brown, Darryl Roman Burt II, Angel L. Candelario-Padro, Juan Chevez-Martinez, Luis Daniel Conde, Cory James Connell, Tevin Eugene Crosby, Deonka Deidra Drayton, Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, Leroy Valentin Fernandez, Mercedez Marisol Flores, Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, Juan Ramon Guerrero, Paul Terrell Henry, Frank Hernandez, Miguel Angel Honorato, Javier Jorge-Reyes, Jason Benjamin Josaphat, Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, Alejandro Barrios Martinez, Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, Kimberly Morris, Akyra Monet Murray, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, Joel Rayon Paniagua, Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, Enrique L. Rios, Jr., Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, Edward Sotomayor Jr., Shane Evan Tomlinson, Martin Benitez Torres, Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, Luis S. Vielma, Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, Jerald Arthur Wright.