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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to

This poem is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Sometimes I consider the names of places Kei Miller
Sometimes I consider the names of places

Sometimes I consider the names of places:

New York, as if York was not enough;

New Orleans, as if Orleans was not enough;

New England, as if England was not enough;

the New World

as if this world was not enough.

There was once a woman from nowhere

There was once a woman from nowhere. That is how Hanna would begin as if it was a fairy tale she was telling and not the story of her grandmother – a woman who had lived in seven countries without ever having moved. And imagine that – the same house, the same stairs, the same clock upon the wall. But outside things were always changing, the armies invading, the borders shifting. Some mornings, without warning, the radio would just up and start speaking a new language. Babička learned how to be polite in German, and how to be demure in Russian, just so the square jawed men in green uniforms would not rape her. She could describe perfectly the land where she was from. She could not always name the place.

Sometimes I consider the names of places

Sometimes I consider the names of places. New
Zealand, as if Zeelandia was not enough. And because
the Dutch Explorer, Abel Tasman, had already spent
the bounty of his name on Tasmania. At first he
called it ‘Staten Landt’, believing its mountain ranges
connected to the southern tip of South America.
Argentina, Peru, Chile, New Zealand. Three years later,
it was renamed Nova Zeelandia.

In Nova Zeelandia, on the spot of land whose
coordinates are 45°5'S 170°30'E is a place that was
once called Otepoti, and is still called Otepoti by those
with long memory, and would still be written on the
maps as ‘Otepoti’ if it weren’t for a Scottish churchman
who saw something in the landscape that reminded
him of home.

Place name – Dunedin. Old Gaelic word. ‘Dun’ being
the same word as ‘fort’. Fort being the same word
as ‘burgh’. Dunedin, or Fort Edin, or Edin Fort, or
Edinburgh. And it doesn’t stop there. The town
planner is instructed to ‘emulate’ the Scottish city,
as if to make territories out of maps, as if to tame the
too-wild landscape, as if to baptise and make good
Christians out of trees.

But I love the way that landscapes resist, the poet Bill
Manhire tells me. How they throw up mountains where
there should be valleys, and lakes where there should be
fields, and rivers where there should be sea.

These things I know as much as you

These things I know as much as you: how morning
comes, that slow brightening of sky; the world
revealing itself as outline, the shape of rooves, and
birds that oar themselves across the high pink sea; the
day that does not yet smell of day; the here that could
be anywhere, and every place. It is possible, in that
pre-day world – to ignore the specifics, the names of
birds or places, the specific shape of rooves – to simply
be in the world, wrapped by an unbothered sky.

Sometimes I consider the names of places

Sometimes I consider the names of places: the West Indies. Or said another
way: Western India

as if India was not enough.

And isn’t it incredible that such a name should stick despite all geographic
proof to the contrary. And maybe this is what place is – a distorted way of
seeing, an insufficient imagining.

Cristobal, como se dice ‘Taino’ en espanol?      Indio

Cristobal, como se dice ‘Carib’ en espanol?      Indio

Cristobal, como se dice ‘Guanahatabey’ en espanol?    Indio

What did it matter, our own names?

We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.

Place name: Oracabessa –    

origins disputed but most likely leave-over from the Spanish. Oracabeza, Golden Head, though what gold was here other than light glinting off the bay, other than bananas bursting out from red flowers? Though this too is disputed – not the flowers – but the origin of bananas; they may have come here with Columbus on a ship which in 1502 slipped into Oracabessa the way grief sometimes slips into a room. In those days the sailor tried to name the island Santiago, as if not knowing we already had a name, in another language, a language whose speakers would soon all die – though this too is disputed – not the deaths, but the completeness of genocide. For consider, if you will, such leave-over words as hurricane; consider barbecue; consider Xaymaca, land of wood and water – of wood and water but not of gold. Could someone please go back in time and tell Columbus, in Taino there is no word for gold. Christopher Columbus, in Italiano Cristoforo Colombo, en español Cristóbal Colón. A teacher once told me ‘Colón’ is root word for colonist, and though I know that was false etymology, there is some truth to it. Oracabessa – place where you might find such tranquil villas as Golden Ridge, Golden Clouds, Goldeneye – long-time home of Ian Fleming who sat there on cliff’s edge, the morning’s breakfast brought to him by a woman named Doris, the scent of ackee and crisp-fried breadfruit wafting up to his nostrils while between his teeth he bit a number 2 pencil, all the time looking out to sea as if fishing for a story – maybe a man – an incredible man – let’s call him Bond. James Bond. Who knew 007 wasn’t actually Scottish, but a barefoot bwoy from St Mary, Jamaica. Like so many others, he too migrated – the brutish winter cooling his complexion down to white. Such stories! Goldfinger, Goldeneye, the Man with the Golden Gun. Did you never stop to wonder where all this gold came from? Did you never stop to ask, what was found in El Dorado? Well, let me tell you: not a nugget, not an ounce of ore – but light gilding the bay, and perhaps bananas, and perhaps ackee, and such language as could summon wind to capsize Columbus’s ships – and if that’s not gold, then what is?

What I remember now is the circle of thunder

What I remember now is the circle of thunder, a roundabout of rumbling, distant enough that we could pretend for some time we were not hearing it. I think now about those minutes of denial – how slow we always are to admit to new things or things we cannot name. We were town people after all, out of place in that kind of green field that spreads behind the quick-stick fences of red dirt roads in rural Jamaica – the kind of fence against which you might expect to find an old man wearing a straw hat and waterboots – a farmer of onions or lettuce or even cows – and who, had he followed us over the fence and into this field, might have understood the roundabout of rumbling, and could have named it for us.

We had climbed over the fence on our own and hiked until we found what seemed a good spot to build a fire. And our laughter was the sound of the night, and the crackling wood the sound of the stars. But then came the circle of thunder which was not the sound of the moon or the galaxies or the trees or anything we knew. We pretended we did not hear it.

No matter how fierce the hurricane of words or the gales of laughter, there always comes lull – a suddenness of silence, like a held breath, or the flatness between waves. And into that lull stepped the thunder. What the hell is that? And the question, said out loud, made it impossible for us to persist in denial. We turned on our flashlights – shone them out into the darkness. From a distance we could not measure, flaming red eyes stared back at us.

We screamed. Only then did we hear them clearly – the neighing and whinnying. Horses. About a dozen of them. We were in their field. Our fire had disturbed them. The dull thunder around us was their hooves. We outed the fire as quickly as we could, and just as quickly made our way back to the fence and over it.

And what I remember now is the country road stretched out before us, and the night, and our clothes still smelling of smoke. And that we were town people, and that we were out of place, though I never understood then what places meant nor what it meant to be outside them.

So what will we call the thing between places

So what will we call the thing between places? Like hiking up a mountain – that thing between one village and the next, between the long sit downs, the stretch between the stretch? What do you call it – that interruption of miles that might smell of eucalyptus, that limbo of land when there is nothing left to see, just the same hills rolling to the same valleys, the same unbothered sky, and that turn you could swear you already took two miles down the hill is here again, and you fighting for the same thin air, a pain in your ankle, the trudging trudge of it all, and too wary to make out of it a metaphor, something about striving.

Or else like driving, or being driven – the part that is just road and night and cats-eyes like a scattering of stars – the part where you sleep.

Or else, like flying across the Atlantic – not the buckle-up or the take-off, not the meal or the movie, but that lull when the cabin lights are dimmed and the blankets are drawn –

What is it called – the nameless space between, as if nothing important happened here. As if no one important happened here.

Sometimes I consider the nameless spaces

Sometimes I consider the nameless spaces – the here that was here before the invention of doors or houses or cities, the landscape before it was landscaped, just the easy acres of possibility.

I have read it is possible to hear trees breathing. And that they send messages across a complicated network of roots – warnings of insects, and what defences can be used. And it is possible to observe the slow walk of trees, thought it might take you a thousand years to see them inching across a ridge.

If sometimes it is possible to hear trees breathing, can you also hear them catch their breaths before the violence of place? Because isn’t place always a violence – the decimation of trees, the genocide of bees, the dislocation of birds, the cutting, the clearing, the paving, the smoothing, the raising up of cement like giant tombstones over the grave of all that was there before.

To consider the nearby bushes

To consider the nearby bushes – a stretch of canefield perhaps, or the crotons behind the house – is to consider the nameless places, or perhaps the placeless places. It is to consider the nonspecific ‘here’ – a here that could be everywhere, or maybe nowhere.

This poem is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
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