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American Names by Stephen Vincent Benet


ON SUNDAY I WAS TRAVELING up the spine of northern California to Mt. Shasta. I’d gone there, unbeknownst to me, for the waters (Of that more later.)

As you begin to climb out of the hot brindle Great Central Valley at Redding you start to pass the necklace of small towns begun before Interstate 5; begun as a path along the Sacramento River that evolved into a rail line that became a two-lane road above and then the mountain spanning Interstate 5. Along the way, you pass signs pointing to this or that town long since diminished by the big box stores on the north side of Redding. One of these, I noted at 75mph, was “Poker Flat.” “Poker Flat” I mused and let it roll trippingly off my tongue. And then I thought, “That’s a name with no fat.” Which was when I remembered the opening lines of a poem by Stephen Vincent Benet that I last read fifty years ago. There was, in the last line, a shock of recognition that was not there fifty years ago.

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining-claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Seine and Piave are silver spoons,
But the spoonbowl-metal is thin and worn,
There are English counties like hunting-tunes
Played on the keys of a postboy’s horn,
But I will remember where I was born.

I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy’s Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain.

I will fall in love with a Salem tree
And a rawhide quirt from Santa Cruz,
I will get me a bottle of Boston sea
And a blue-gum nigger to sing me blues.
I am tired of loving a foreign muse.

Rue des Martyrs and Bleeding-Heart-Yard,
Senlis, Pisa, and Blindman’s Oast,
It is a magic ghost you guard
But I am sick for a newer ghost,
Harrisburg, Spartanburg, Painted Post.

Henry and John were never so
And Henry and John were always right?
Granted, but when it was time to go
And the tea and the laurels had stood all night,
Did they never watch for Nantucket Light?

I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse.
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea.
You may bury my body in Sussex grass,
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.

Alert the Authorities!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Venlet June 18, 2018, 1:16 PM

    Bad Axe, MI would be a good one to add to the list.

  • CC June 19, 2018, 6:54 AM

    Also the locale of the great Bret Harte story.

  • Ray Van Dune June 19, 2018, 7:12 AM

    Medicine Hat is not an American name, unless there is a lesser cousin to the one in the Province of Alberta, 🇨🇦 . Which is home to a very fine dinosaur museum, set in the scorching badlands where the fossils are still coming out of the earth.

  • Vanderleun June 19, 2018, 7:31 AM

    Well, I don’t know. With a suitable bit of poetic license you could say that Cananda and the USA are all part of America. Norte America.

  • Vanderleun June 19, 2018, 7:32 AM

    Ah, yes that Bret Harte story. Good call.

  • Brendan June 19, 2018, 7:40 AM

    Medicine Hat, if you don’t know what it means, see this post by Mustang Meg:

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/mustang-meg/medicine-hat-mustangs/10155569888957776/

    See also the photo at this Wikipedia entry:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinto_horse

  • Vanderleun June 19, 2018, 7:46 AM

    GOOD POINTERS. Very good Brendan. Thanks.

  • John Venlet June 19, 2018, 10:18 AM

    CC or Gerard, can you point me to the Bret Harte story which mentions Bad Axe? I am unfamiliar with his work. Thanks.

  • Vanderleun June 19, 2018, 10:23 AM

    That was unclear. It wasn’t Bad Axe I was refering to but Harte’s Poker Flat… available here…

    The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Harte, Francis Bret. 1917. The Luck of Roaring Camp, The Outcasts of Poker Flat & The Idyl of Red Gulch. Vol. X, Part 4. Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction

    The Outcasts of Poker Flat

    AS Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.

  • DavidB June 19, 2018, 10:43 AM

    It always stuns, and delights me, to see a familiar phrase in its original context, one that was unknown to me. “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee” indeed. Not unlike recently reading “eat, drink and be merry” in Ecclesiastes 8:15.

  • Vanderleun June 19, 2018, 11:15 AM

    That was exactly my own “shock of recognition” reaction on reading that last line.

  • John Venlet June 19, 2018, 11:33 AM

    Thanks for pointing to “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Gerard. It was a “square fun” read.