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Analysis of Poem 'Naming Myself' by Barbara Kingsolver

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

'Naming Myself' Poem Analysis

'Naming Myself' is a short, free verse poem that focuses on identity, cultural roots, ethnicity and the family surname. It's about who we are and how our names function in society and community.

Barbara Kingsolver, herself of mixed blood, uses her background and family past to explore the idea of individual rights and freedoms within society. The first-person speaker attempts to protect and authenticate the surname by detailing for the reader her family history of how her grandfather broke a certain blood taboo by marrying a Cherokee woman.

The basic theme of the poem is the question of individual identity as an integral part of one's surname. What's in a name? Why is it significant to have 'ownership' of a surname?

These are fundamental questions that involve cultural history, familial and societal convention, human rights, particularly those of women, and status.

By highlighting a specific incident in her family's history—the grandfather stealing a horse and riding off to his native American bride-to-be—Barbara Kingsolver brings the broader issue of race relations into the mix.

As a popular novelist and essayist, she has written much on similar themes. Her novel Pigs in Heaven (a follow-up to her first novel The Bean Trees) details the experiences of a white mother who adopts a Cherokee child.

Reluctant to call herself a poet, this author acknowledges the essential mystery of the measured line and the invisible spark:

'Poetry just is, whether we revere it or try to put it in prison. It is elementary grace, communicated from one soul to another. It reassures us of what we know and socks us in the gut with what we don't, it sings us awake, it's irresistible, it's congenital.'

Reprinted from Another America by Barbara Kingsolver, Seal Press Seattle, WA.

In this poem, though written in simple language, her use of poetic devices (personification, metaphor and simile) helps enhance and reinforce the themes. It sends out the message that it is necessary to keep a family name strong, that losing a surname can mean losing one's identity and heritage.

First published in her book Another America, 1992, it is now a regular work of study in classrooms all over the USA and further afield.

'Naming Myself' by Barbara Kingsolver

I have guarded my name as people

in other times kept their own clipped hair,

believing the soul could be scattered

if they were careless.


I knew my first ancestor.

His legend. I have touched

his boots and moustache, the grandfather

whose people owned slaves and cotton.

He was restless in Virginia

among the gentleman brothers, until

one peppered, flaming autumn he stole a horse,

rode over the mountains to marry

a leaf-eyed Cherokee.

The theft was forgiven but never

the Indian blood. He lost his family’s name

and invented mine, gave it fruit and seeds.

I never knew the grandmother.

Her photograph has ink-thin braids

and buttoned clothes, and nothing that she was called.


I could shed my name in the middle of life,

the ordinary thing, and it would flee

along with childhood and dead grandmothers

to that Limbo for discontinued maiden names.


But it would grow restless there.

I know this. It would ride over leaf smoke mountains

and steal horses.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

This is a free verse poem of 26 lines formed into four stanzas. Basically, the first stanza sets up the speaker's position with regards to keeping her name well protected. The following stanzas offer a historical, familial context and possible scenarios should the name be lost.

'Naming Myself' is a straightforward poem with basic language but offers up metaphor, imagery and personification as enrichment for the reader.

First Stanza

The first person speaker contrasts her name with that of hair, hair kept safe in a locket or container because, in times past, some people believed that hair was precious and embodied the soul.

By using something 'solid' (hair) that the body produces as a symbol of inner identity (the soul), the speaker is reinforcing the idea of identity and making it more tangible. People still have a strong connection to their hair; it reflects on personality, well-being and cultural identity.

Four short lines, a single sentence and astute use of language—contrast guarded and kept with scattered and careless.

Second Stanza

The longest stanza records the personal family story of an ancestor, a male, who was brought up in a privileged environment, revolts and one autumnal day steals a horse and rides off to marry a Native American woman, a Cherokee.

Disowned by his family the man can no longer use the surname he was born with, so changes it, thus breaking all ties with those who once loved and nurtured him. There is a clear tension set up by this single act of 'betrayal'—the speaker's grandfather is never forgiven for marrying someone of a different race.

This was at a time when the USA was young and raw, when regular battles were fought between the military and Native American tribes who were held to be savages by many incoming whites. Many suffered unnecessarily.

For thousands of years undisturbed on their ancestral lands, indigenous people were faced with the impossible—fight against the enemy and face extinction, or surrender to the inevitable and negotiate a way out to preserve a rich culture.

The speaker relates intimate personal details of the grandfather. She has touched his boots and mustache, and knows of his legend. But the Cherokee wife, the grandmother, remains anonymous, suggesting that women lose everything when they marry because they have to give up their name.

Third Stanza

This issue is opened up a little bit more in the penultimate stanza, the speaker musing that if she gave up her name by conventionally marrying a man, her identity would be lost, it would flee to that Limbo (limbo—a transitional state where a person feels unwanted, an uncertain time where a decision is pending).

Fourth Stanza

The speaker concludes by echoing the actions of her grandfather in previous times. If she were to shed her name it wouldn't be possible to remain in limbo. The same urge to keep faith with life and true identity would manifest.

  • Marge Piercy: 'If I Had Been Called Sabrina or Ann She Said'
  • Emmett Meledez: 'My Name Came From'
  • Teresa Mei Chuc: 'Names'
  • Jennifer Sweeney: 'Jennifers of the 1970s'

Sources

  • Reading, Learning, Teaching Barbara Kingsolver, Peter Lee Thomas, Peter Lang Publishing, NY, 2005
  • Barbara Kingsolver, 'How Poems Happen'. Aisling Magazine.
  • Naming Myself - Barbara Kingsolver - Fung ENG4U. Google.
  • 'Plenary Lecture, Nature and Art in Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer', Tej N Dhar, 2019

© 2021 Andrew Spacey