Hot Tin Roof: On forgetting names

Hot Tin Roof
Hot Tin Roof is a program to showcase current literary work produced in Iowa City. The series is organized and juried by representatives of three Iowa City-based cultural advocacy organizations: The Englert Theatre, Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Little Village magazine.
By Lisa K. Roberts

My grandmother called me Vicki Lisa,
my sister Lisa Vicki, as if she had to
trip first on the wrong name
to land on the right one.  She called
the seafood joint where Vicki worked
Green Lobster, naming a place where
you wouldn’t want to eat.
She hated the name Pauline,
wished people would call her
the name hidden in her middle —  Louise —
which I did on envelopes of letters I wrote
and sometimes remembered to send.
My mother tried to forget her name
three times, her marriages like christenings,
Stanford to Rogers to Roberts to Wilson,
and even baptized herself Melissa Person
when she unfolded our beat-up card table
in a back corner of the Feminist Bookstore,
flung a cranberry bed sheet over it
and wrote astrological charts
for women named Winsome and Strawberry.
This all happened in Lansing, Michigan,
a fact that has not helped me recall
the names of state capitals.
At Post Oak Elementary, in the sixties,
we wrote lots of groovy stories
but no one ever bothered to teach us
the capitals, or give us that catchy song
with eighth notes and a key change
we could take all the way to our nursing homes,
where we’d circle wheelchairs and sing it,
synapses snapping Pierre, South Dakota
before we finished up with Jesus Loves Me
and Home on the Range.   The only capital
we’d ever need, apparently, was
Lansing, Michigan, the one we lived in,
a town surrounded by towns with Indian names
like Onondaga, Okemos,
Shiawasee, that settler’s stole
to help them forget.  I once tried to forget
my father’s name.   At eleven, I wanted to be Lisa
Casteel — a boy I liked was named “Castillo” —
but still I’m stuck with Roberts:
unthinkable that my mother’s daughter would take
another man’s name as her own.
Near the end, when I visited my grandmother
at the Protestant Home in Milwaukee,
I could see in her milky eyes
I made the shape of someone she used to love,
but my name?  Forgotten
along with the names of all other persons,
places and things of this world.
Like Eden before Adam.
Like Eden before Eden.

Lisa K. Roberts works as a teaching-writer with the Iowa Youth Writing Project and as the editor of Iowa City Poetry.  Her poems have appeared in Plainsongs, Poetry in Public, The Daily Palette, and The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets, and she has performed at Strange Cage, VoiceBox, and Was the Word.

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