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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Fiction #60: rob mclennan

Baby Names

                               are the voices                            we have become
                                                                  Cole Swensen, Gravesend


Baby Iphigenia, shortened to If, and sometimes Iffy. She was named for the leader of the Greek forces at Troy, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who threw her body down to save and solve her father’s follies. Less known than vain Helen, hers was not the face to launch a thousand ships, but the sacrifice that prevented further bloodshed. If only.

Names so often shortened; culled to their perfect, familiar forms.

From the time she a toddler, she held a certainty that ignited calm in those around her, unable to discern a single break or a crack. What not even water could unfold.

By her late twenties. Punctual, she knew her marriage over when she arrived late and later for appointments with her husband. She knew he had done nothing wrong, but they’d drifted further apart, inch by restless inch. She didn’t even know she was unhappy until it came crashing in, a single phrase from his lips, three glasses of another Okanagan red into waiting, again.

“Apparently it’s ‘If, not when,’” he added. There.


Call me Ishmael, he said.

But that was not his name, and in the end, was not what we called him.


Georgie girl. Pregnant so very young, she named her baby daughter for the just-released Lynn Redgrave feature and the child grew to hate the association, opting instead for the full Georgina. She preferred, as she explained, a name with weight, something you could hold in your hand like a stone or a brick, not one you’d fear might float away. Her birth certificate was equally infected, “Georgie.”

Her mother thought the name sweet; Georgina associated it too closely with the awkward, overweight film character. She’d had enough trouble of her own. She preferred the association with old King George, Georgian, as was she. The period post-Edwardian, rapt in King and Country, despite their home in the colonies. She flecked her hair with homemade fascinators. She scoured shops for antique, hand-sewn lace.

The thread of the theme song, “Hey, there,” outlined her childhood. Against her will it had imprinted deep upon her, from preschool lullaby her mother sang to schoolyard taunt. When required, she learned early to punch, to throw, to knock down.

When she was twenty-three years old, she took the matter to the courts, and had her name legally altered—Georgina—and spent the following decade guilting her mother for the burden. The issue might have been resolved, but the injury would never fade.


Since the turn of the century, new parents have worked through a sequence of names that those a decade or more before knew only as “old lady names”: Agnes, Myrtle, Charlotte, Laird, Ellen, Della. Names of women born a rough-century before, even earlier. With a gap of time, the old names renew, reemerge. Quite literally, reborn.

In the 1980s, the gust of soap-opera Ashley and Kendra replaced the old standards of Catherine, a Jane or a Jennifer. No family, it seemed, was immune. Names that return and replace any previous. Five girls in a grade school class with the same first name. Add or subtract their birth year times three, and the name is no less prevalent, yet entirely different.

Susan. Emma. Beatrice.


Charles, as his father. Stephen, named for no-one. Identical twins, connected by a ten second pause. As one felt rudderless to his brother’s birthright, the other, held against his sibling’s implied freedoms. Theirs was a complicated relationship, a complicated fate, if one might believe in such things. And yet, so simple.

Ten seconds between, and perhaps it never made a difference. Perhaps the differences were entirely artificial, constructed. A seed they carved and planted, into the divisions they became.


So often, names help shape and announce identity, chosen as arbitrary as one might imagine.

The way my dairy farmer father named the new calves, each year assigned a letter, alphabetical, to keep track of their age.

Alice, Arlette, Annie each a year older than Bertha, Beth, Bonnie.

In the file cabinet he kept in the milkhouse, paperwork on every arrival, every animal he owned. A paperback of baby names.


Adopted at ten months of age, my new parents changed my birth name into something that was meant to be entirely my own, if not theirs. The choice was under their discretion. Because of this, I have been me for most but not all of my life, uncertain how, or if, the shift has shaped me. Perhaps, as Shakespeare wrote, a rose by any other.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

photo credit: Christine McNair

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