Steven Burt’s January post "all-name team" on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and the posts I did in February here on this blog on gay poetry post identity politics, have had me musing about identity, social and personal, and about the role names play in producing identity. I’ve been thinking about names, what they are and what they do. As Burt points out, poetry is a kind of naming, and naming is in turn a kind of poetry. In poems, names are like magic talismans that contain and convey the essence of the thing named. So when two things are given the same name, then they are or become the same. And when the name changes, then the thing named changes.
The thought of changing names and things, in turn, has me thinking of my own name (everything makes me think of me), the changes it has undergone over the course of my life, and a couple of people with whom I share that name, whom I’m quite sure are not the same, as me or as each other. But when I look myself up, there they are. And when I look up the wrong spelling of my name, some other version of me, there I am anyway, as if I were two people who’ve led the same life, or at least who’ve published the same things in the same places. As Steve Burt points out, “Titles, names, labels ask questions, and raise possibilities.” So who are the possible me’s my name makes possible?
I was born Reginald Berry on the morning of April 10, 1963. Berry was my unmarried mother’s last name; like the protagonist of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Love Child,” I started my life in an old, cold, rundown tenement slum, burdened by the stigma of illegitimacy, which for me was the same as poverty. The birth certificate I am always losing documenting the birth of “Reginald Shepherd” was issued in 1968, after my mother had sued my deadbeat Barbadian father to prove that he was indeed my father. What we got out of that I never understood, since he almost never paid the meager thirty-five dollars a week in child support as ordered by the court.
I sometimes wonder if who I am changed when I ceased to be Reginald Berry (I was five) and became Reginald Shepherd: indeed, when I ceased ever to have been Reginald Berry. Reginald Berry was erased, as if he had never been, and his place was taken by Reginald Shepherd, as if I had always been him and he had always been me, except that Reginald Shepherd came into existence at the age of five, having completely bypassed birth and infancy, not to mention the terrible twos and threes.
I was enmeshed in the social services network at a very early age (as everyone in her family always said, my mother knew how to work the system), and to this day I am in the Social Security Administration records as Reginald Berry Shepherd, a name I have never legally had or even gone by, a name that has never been mine. They remember all the pasts, and conflate them into one.
Would my life have been different if I had remained Reginald Berry, if Reginald Berry had not been erased as if he had never existed? At the least, people would have much less occasion to misspell my name, and who knows what effect that confidence that I would be correctly spelled could have had on my self-esteem?
My mother (who went from being Blanche Berry to being Blanche Graham—my stepfather’s name—without ever having been Blanche Shepherd) always told me that my name meant “Great King” in Celtic. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (whose only authority is that of its author, Douglas Harper), my name derives from Old High German and means “ruling with power.” According to Dictionary.com Unabridged (which bases its claim to authority on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary), it derives from an Old English word meaning “counsel and rule.” I believe that it’s related to the name of the Celtic goddess Rigantona, whose name means “Great Queen.” Someone in college told me that my name was the ablative form of the Latin rex, “king,” meaning something like “of the.” Perhaps I was the king’s favorite shepherd or, in my previous life, his favorite fruit. My younger half sister is named Regina (my mother had a plan); her name unambiguously means “Queen.” I confess to being a bit jealous of her name’s indisputable authority.
But despite the grandeurs of my first name, I have felt a little deprived that I don’t have a middle name. My mother had one, later my abusive Jamaican stepfather had one, and still later my younger half-sister had one. I settled on “Alexander” as an appropriate middle name: Alexander the Great was a famous king and conqueror, and the initials “RAS” spelled out the Amharic word for “prince.” (The late Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was known was Ras Tafari Makonnen, “Prince Tafari Makonnen,” before his ascension to the throne. Hence the group name Rastafarian, though this quasi-religion has never had any connection with Ethiopia.) But I never had my name legally changed, and as I got older I lost interest in the matter.