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In Praise of the Names of Things

Chelsea Wagenaar

My daughter knows around thirty words
and some of them are animal sounds,
though the doctor assures me that counts.
When the neighbor’s Great Dane charged
up and down his length of fence
barking at her, his body electric with muscle,
she stood very still, watching him,
and only replied, woof.
Dog, she says, when the squirrel runs
up the tree. Dog, when she spots the large elk
moving quietly through the white woods.
Moon! she says, pointing at each streetlight.
Water is everywhere: the toilet, the sink,
the hot pot, the mud puddle.
Some water we can touch and some we can’t.
I struggle to tell her the truth. That is a dog.
(But it’s a puppy.) See its feet? (Paws.)
Touch its hair. (Fur.) See, he likes you!
(He wants to taste the sugar on your lip.)
When she wakes each morning, she sits in her crib
practicing her words—
making sure they’re all still there.
Momma, baby, baa baa, rock, walk, book.
When I told my students monosyllabic words
force us to slow down, they did not
believe me. No, they said, that’s just Augustine’s style.
But see how I slow outside her door to hear
the careful curation, the strung litany of sounds
that places her in the world. In my world.
In a world with such good things
as dogs and moons, and moondogs,
which I’ll explain someday,
pointing at that luminous halo,
its two rare bright beads.
Scuff marks on the floor of heaven.
Smudged breath spots on the oculus
that looks into a beyond
we’re still working to name.
(Ice crystals refracted by light.
More water we can’t touch.)

Chelsea Wagenaar is the author of Mercy Spurs the Bone, selected by Philip Levine as the winner of the 2013 Philip Levine Prize. She holds a PhD in English literature and creative writing from the University of North Texas. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, The Normal School, and The Southern Review, and recent nonfiction appears in Grist. Wagenaar currently teaches as a postdoctoral Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University and is at work on a second book of poems, The Spinning Place. She lives in Indiana with her husband, poet Mark Wagenaar; their daughter; and their son.