Magpies, Alaska, and my poem “Naming”

July 9, 2010

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Magpie by Diane Stiglich (collection of the author).

Almost a decade ago, the Alaska Quarterly Review published a poem of mine called “Naming.” I thought of it today because a good friend mentioned it in a message to me on Twitter. (She had overheard a conversation about magpies I was having with another friend.)

I’m not around magpies much these days, living on the East Coast. I miss them. Magpies, all corvids, really, are a totem for me (bears, especially polar bears are my other totem). Highly intelligent birds with bad reputations, they are a lot of fun.

Gary Snyder once told me and a group of other students that we should find totems for our poetry, “this is the world of nature, myth, archetype, and ecosystem that we must all investigate.” He also told us to “fear not science,” to know what’s what in the ecosystem, to study mind and language, and that our work should be grounded in place. Most of all, he instructed, “be crafty and get the work done.”

Advice that also, curiously enough, reminds me of magpies.

Here is my poem “Naming”:

The way a name lingers in the snow
when traced by hand.
The way angels are made in snow,
all body down,
arms moving from side to ear to side to ear—
a whisper, a pause;
the slight, melting hesitation–

The pause in the hand as it moves
over a name carved in black granite.
The “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck,”
of great-tailed grackles
at southern coastal marshes,
or the way magpies repeat,
“Meg, Meg, Meg”–

The way the rib cage of a whale
resembles the architecture of I. M. Pei.
The way two names on a page
separated by thousands of lines,
pages, bookshelves, miles, can be connected.
The way wind hums through cord grass;
rain on bluestem, on mesquite–

The tremble in the sandpiper
as it skitters over tidal mudflats,
tracking names in the wet silt,
silt that has been building
since Foreman lost to Ali,
since Troy fell — building until
we forget names altogether–

The way children, who know only
syllables endlessly repeated,
connect one moment to the next by
humming, humming, humming–
The way magpies connect branches
into thickets for their nesting–

The curve of thumb as it caresses
the letters in the name of a loved one
on the printed page, connecting
each letter with a trace of oil
from fingerprint to fingerprint,
again and again and again—

Scott Edward Anderson
Alaska Quarterly Review, Summer 2001

Here is an Mp3 recording of me reading “Naming” Live at the Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, on September 22, 2008: Scott Edward Anderson’s “Naming” (Note: there is a 10-second delay at the beginning of the file.)

Postscript: And here is a filmpoem of “Naming” made by Alastair Cook in 2011: Naming

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5 Responses to “Magpies, Alaska, and my poem “Naming””


  1. This is one seriously beautiful poem Scott… Smooth, true, relaxing and heartfelt… Thank you… Appreciated…


  2. […] I studied with Gary and he had a big impact on my poetry, which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog. […]


  3. […] not, they’ve never included any of mine – not even some of my better efforts, like “Naming” and “Fallow Field.” The latter was nominated for a Pushcart, but as the title poem of my […]


  4. […] was published, for the first time, in 2001 and you wrote about it once again in 2010, and now we are talking about it again today. What about this poem makes it relevant across so much […]


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