POETRY, BLOG, & INTERVIEWS

Frederick W. Bassett reviews Dr. Sue Walker's "Let Us Imagine Her Name"

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I have long admired Sue Brannan Walker for her accomplishments as publisher and editor of
Negative Capability Press as well as her scholarship and creative writing. For twenty years, I’ve
been piecing together her life from fragmented sources, and I’m deeply touched, perhaps deepest
of all, by her ongoing search for names that will fill the lacunas in her own existential
manuscript.

If you care about the lives of fascinating and complex women, you will find much to care about
in Walker’s latest book Let Us Imagine Her Name.

After citing several authors on the significance of names and naming, she provides a third-person
introduction to herself in “A Prolegomenon or Preamble.” Here the reader learns that she has
often asked herself who she might be if she could be anyone.

To help with that question of late, Walker has conjured up a diverse array of 26 women, each
bearing a name that begins with one of the letters of the alphabet. Using a variety of formats and
a dialogic approach, she measures her own life against theirs, starting with Abigail Adams and
running through Ziyi Zang.

In “Furthermore, Moreover, and Besides,” we learn upfront that “This creation is a mix of prose
poetry and lyric essay that ventures into various modes of telling.”

Before turning to the 26 women, Walker gives us two prose poems. The first is an artful and
honest treatment of her constant quest for her own identity, until she “became the crone who
would give herself a name, trying on identities like dresses, like bonnets, like silk panties she
could, at last, afford.”

Then there’s “Shilly-Shallying Sin: Like Mother is an Improper Name,” an extended onesentence
poem about the birthmother who gave her away:

Her body, her mamabody, thick and craving, a house,
white bone house on a red-rutted road she never
dreamed she would walk down, down past loblolly
pines where waiting, she would sometimes braid a
bracelet of pinestraw flowers, flowers that would never
bloom, those little curly nodes she’d wear on her wrist,
her body housing a baby, housing it nine months, but
yet unborn, there in the piney woods, backwoods
hiding whiskey stills, where that drunkard, that
married debt-stud daddy rode her like his mare when
she walked into the woods . . .

When I got this far into the poem, I paused wishing I could hear Walker reading it. Then I started
over, reading it aloud, letting it ring against the walls where I spend most of my days, alone now.

I had the same experience when I got to Walker’s love song about her black mammie in “Esther:
Strange Words Deep Down” which ends this way:

. . . I thought she was my mother. I loved her, this mother,
mammie, mum, momma, mam, mummy, dam; I loved her
long past the day she didn’t come to work, didn’t come
ever again to cuddle me, for my own mother told her to go,
told her not to return, fired her for kissing me on my lips
with her lips, and I knew then, knew how children know
things without never being told, knew the clabber of telling,
knew I was not Esther and never could be, but learned what
I’d always know from that day to this—that I am poem and
Story, the land, novel-woman, a crone raisin’ Cain.

The Esther in this piece is a fictional woman in Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Walker is clearly
struck by the fact that Toomer cannot describe something as ordinary as Esther’s hair without
calling attention to the racism of the South:

Hair—braid chestnut,
Coiled like a lyncher’s rope

These lines were so evocative that Walker uses them near the beginning of the piece and then
ends with it, immediately after exposing the racism of the mother who adopted her.

In addition to Esther, there are other fictional women in this collection: Lois Lane of Action
Comics, Olive Oyl of carton fame, and Ursula the main villain in the Disney movie “The Little
Mermaid.” There are also pieces on the mytho-poetic goddesses Isis and Qadesh. And then
there’s “NOLA: Ten Ways to Miss New Orleans.”

In “Valentina Vazzeli: In Tenue,” Walker squares off with the Italian fencer who has won six
Olympic gold medals in foil competitions. Perhaps, she was charmed by Vazzeli’s quote to
Silvio Berlusconi, “I’d very happily let you touch me,” touch being a significant word in fencing.
Walker realizes that she is no match for the woman’s blade or beauty but she does not give up on
her own honorable mettle:

Words foil and fail me, for they cannot erase lines that
menace my face. Even if I might extend an arm and
blade and counter aging, there is no redoublement, no
reprise for the agglomeration of years, but I shall show
my mettle and raise awareness of issues concerning
people of modest means, and maybe I will dance under
a canopy of stars on Dauphin Island as if I were 19 once
more.

There is fencing wit and cutting intelligence in all these pieces. In some of them, there are
segments that you want to study for a moment and then let them transport you to some place
you’ve stored in your own memory. In “Wendy Wasserstein: If Only,” for example, Walker
addresses the playwright directly and confesses:

My husband says I’m good at scenes—domestic and
otherwise—and I can create them in a moment’s notice,
stage them in a flash.

Who could read this without some scene that they have created flashing before them? After
additional discourse with Wasserstein, Walker creates her own short play: a bare stage with two
Frederick W. Bassett is a retired academic who turned to creative writing late in life. His poems
have appeared widely in anthologies and journals, including Georgia Review, Illuminations,
Mudfish, Negative Capability, Passager, Pembroke Magazine, Poem, Slant, The Cape Rock,
Timberline Review, Yemassee, and Zone 3. His latest book of poems is The Old Stoic Faces the
Mirror. He also has two novels South Wind Rising and Honey from a Lion. Bassett currently live
near his grandchildren in Greenwood, SC.

Frederick W. Bassett
Fred.Bassett34@gmail.com

There’s one thing for sure, Let Us Imagine Her Name will not let you settle into a rut. Each piece
starts anew with its own conceit and form, luring, arresting, and calling us to witness and to
name. I highly recommend it.