Nomenomancy

divination by names

By Mark Wagenaar

Featured art by Ryan De Hamer

Like each of us, it could only guess at its own begetting. A careless cigarette, electrical spark, Molotov cocktail hurled by an angry senior who had his letter to the editor rejected, we never found out how the fire started. Only smoke suddenly billowing above the town. Shreds of ten thousand newspapers upon the air, in slow drift through open windows, coming to rest on the eyelids & lips of men sleeping off the night shift at the furnace. Embers floated for hours through the streets, through back alleys, & ended up in the black fur of cats, gray hair of old men playing checkers, on the tongues of children who didn’t know better. A shroud upon the impatiens & petunias in tire & barrel gardens, on the feathers of pigeons in rooftop cages. In the silos the tatters found space amid the grains, & our news made it across the oceans: liquidation sales, stories on the alderman’s affair, the mayor’s new dog. And one death—one obituary. Larry, the boy who jumped his dirt bike into the canal. His name now upon the air, with our questions for him. We looked up at a sky that whirled with clouds of his name, & saw on that air once more the arc of his bike between the bridge and the rest of his life. His name rained down upon us, confetti for a parade of his absence. For years we found his name—in our underwear drawers, in our cereal boxes, in the big hair of our pageant contestants. In the open bags of sugar in the Home Ec classroom, the ones that girls would name and care for, & come to remember when their own babies were held up, his half-burned name against the brilliance of the sugar crystals, these sugar babies, each one named Larry.


Mark Wagenaar is the author of three award-winning poetry collections, most recently the Saltman Prize-winning “Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining,” from Red Hen Press. His fiction and poetry appear widely, including the New Yorker, Tin House, the Southern Review, Gulf Coast, the Cincinnati Review, and River Styx, among many others. He is the husband of poet Chelsea Wagenaar, and presently an assistant professor at Valparaiso University.

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