The Name Museum, Nick McRae’s first full-length collection of poems and winner of C&R Press’s De Novo Poetry Prize, begins with an epigraph from Psalm 49, in which the psalmist points to the folly of those men whose “inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations,” who “call their lands after their own names.” So begins The Name Museum’s investigation of home, religion, and mortality, of naming and heredity. In this collection, the poet seeks both to place his own voice within the context of tradition and history and to honor the voices around him as he moves through such seemingly disparate landscapes as the Georgia foothills and Eastern Europe. Written in sonnets and villanelles, in blank verse and free verse (and with a chant royal thrown in for good measure), these are carefully crafted poems made of equal parts devotion, remembrance, and imagination. They are also poems suffused with both earnestness and honesty: here is a poet with a song, and it is our privilege to listen.
In the so-called Name Museum of the opening title poem, an unidentified “you” leads the speaker “like a docent” through “the halls centuries long,” past rooms for names like Charles, Catherine, and David. This poem, which serves as a frontispiece to the whole collection, makes the past a museum—a guided history of the historical selves who have held our names—and as we enter The Name Museum’s first section, we see that McRae’s poems become their own structures of remembrance through which we are led, the poet now the docent. In “Psalm 137,” for example, the speaker traces his grandfathers’ lives backwards in time through a series of questions. He asks first, “Where now are the old men of my childhood / who laughed, swore, jawed plugs of tobacco / and spat the red-brown swill into the dust.” With each question, the speaker ventures further back in time, his grandfathers growing younger, turning from men, to young men, to boys, and then to children “who squatted by creeks / in dark pine thickets.” With each of these movements backwards, the speaker’s sense of coming loss becomes more acute until finally he can only ask:
Where, O Lord, is the home I only almost had—
mythic, bloody as a psalm in the mouths
of old and dying men who will take it
with them wholly when they go?
As this speaker will later declare, “Home is the place we lose things,” and so these poems—these structures of remembrance through which the poet leads us—are both a stand against and an acknowledgement of all that will not keep: a grandfather’s mind riddled with Alzheimer’s, a family house gutted after a death, even persimmon trees needlessly downed by a brother and the fruit “too soft to save.”
But as much as these poems are written to honor the past—and the passing present—they are written to honor particular places too. True to his collection’s title, McRae submerges us in a specificity of names: in the first section, for example, we learn of Shinbone Valley Road, Chattooga County, Welcome Hill, and Duck Creek. But more importantly, we are also immersed in the lives which populate such places. In “Mountain Redemption,” the chant royal to which I earlier alluded, the poet surveys an unspecified town, each of the five major stanzas devoted to a resident: Otis Wilkins, “the one-armed barber”; Petunia Eckert, part-time plumber; Old Jackie Raburn; Sheriff Biggers; and the widowed Preacher Greene. Due to the form’s interlocking rhyme scheme and its repetition, the lives of these “mountain people” become linked despite the private struggles that might isolate them—they are all, we learn, “like sinners on the mourners’ bench.” This poem, like many in the collection, demonstrates the attention that McRae pays to individual lives, to their nuance and pain, to their dignity. Through carefully selected details, here are people rendered “hard as limestone, / rich as black silt, deep as clay.”
In The Name Museum’s second section, the poems shift from the American South to Eastern Europe—and to the Czech Republic and Slovakia in particular. Here the speaker explores these new places “where women pace barefoot in dry grass and rusting / bottle caps, sandals in hands, skirts trailing for days” and also his brief love affair with a woman named Karolina: “and I know I will lose her, lose whole days pacing alleys / in the cobbled pastels of this city I will also lose, / which will become, as I speed away from it, my home.” As such lines demonstrate, despite their divergent geographies, the second section’s poems are in no way disconnected from the first, concerned as they are with memory and forgetting, with the specificity of place and the inevitability of loss. So too, as in the first section, we come to learn the lives of strangers through the glimpses the poet offers us: in “Benediction for Slovakia,” the poet prays, “Bless Jozef Ruman and the house his sons moved home to build with him, the mother / dead ten years”; he prays,
Bless Villam Ondrla who, half-drunk, shovels
snow and watches families traipse sure-footed
down the lanes he cleared. Lord, bless the sons
he never had, the wife he’ll never lose,
his bare apartment.
Here, as elsewhere, is our poet’s earnestness—he is serious in his plea when he writes, “Father, turn your face to shine upon them,” and none of the ironic detachment that marks so much contemporary poetry marks his longing for God to “bless the fading Hapsburg-era glamour / of flaking gold foil, plaster cracked and soot stained, / the spired cathedrals empty, wreathed in lichen.”
Empathetic acts like these found in “Benediction for Slovakia” move us into The Name Museum’s third and final section, which is largely the world of imagination. Here are monologues written in the voices of biblical characters, from Isaiah to the last sheep in Uz to God himself; here are monologues written in the voices of historical men named Nicholas, like St. Nicholas of Lycia and Nicholas Copernicus, which must populate the Nicholas room of the so-called name museum; here, even, are poems imagining a modern apocalypse, in which “[s]tars fall around us and we read the morning / paper by their flaming out,” in which “even in their burning, / trees cling wildly to the earth.” In part, such poems mark a departure from the collection’s first two sections, marked by their consistent speaker, who led us “like a docent.” But it would not be fair to say that these poems do not fit within the scope of the collection. Throughout, we have been in a world of connected and intertwined lives. Here, however, they are connected not by their location in space but in the mindscape of the poet. As McRae writes in “Orpheus in Huntsville, Alabama”—Orpheus being another “persona” tackled in the third section—“daddy taught me the fiddle, and mama / sang her hymns so sweet they shimmied / out her throat and into mine.” This, in large part, is what McRae has been doing all along: letting voices—from the voices of forefathers to strangers—sing through his own mouth, even as his music remains uniquely his own.
In The Name Museum, McRae leads us through elegies and homilies, through diverse landscapes and the lives of various individuals, and through his speakers’ praise, belief, and fear, maintaining both a careful formal control and a genuine interest in rendering the world in its complexity. Because of this, we quickly come to appreciate McRae’s music and his vision, finding ourselves happy to be led by our poet “like a docent” through The Name Museum.
Corinna McClanahan Schroeder is the author of Inked, winner of the X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize and forthcoming from Texas Review Press. Her poetry appears in such journals as The Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Poet Lore, and Blackbird. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California.