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.