“Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed and “The Names” by Billy Collins both make use of the methodical listing of things, linking these things with the surrounding environment. In the former poem the speaker is one of a group of soldiers being instructed on the names given to different parts of a rifle, alternately listening to the lecturer and allowing his mind to wander to the world around them. In the latter, the speaker is reflecting on the victims of 9/11 and their families; all of them, names from A to Z, a single representative for each letter. The names are seen and felt in everything the speaker encounters in his daily life.
In Reed’s poem the mechanical, blunt, and straightforward lecture is juxtaposed with descriptions of the natural world surrounding the soldiers, providing a stark contrast between the regimented quality of war and the peaceful, serene quality of nature. Vocabulary and jargon associated with the parts of a rifle are repeated within the context of the trees and flowers around them. For example, in the second verse, the instructor begins and the soldier ends,
….And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This repetition, rather than bringing these two worlds together, separates them, by ironically indicating that both of these worlds operate under the same rules of life and death, and yet one succeeds in maintaining harmony where the other utterly fails. The poem has a bit of a sarcastic tone, giving a sense of the elevation of the beauty of nature and the condemnation of the strict, unimaginative reality of war.
In “The Names,” we also see a juxtaposition of violence and nature; instead of using the instruments of war as a comparison, however, Collins uses the victims – the result of violence, as a comparative element for nature. The poem is reflective and sorrowful, and underlines just how pervasive an effect 9/11 had, not only on the lives of the survivors and the grief-stricken friends and family of those lost, but also on the millions of citizens whose lives were indirectly affected by such a wanton attack on their homeland. The names are “written in the air/And stitched into the cloth of the day.” The people, their memory, can be found in tattoos, in photographs, in monograms, “spelled out on storefront windows” and “rising in the updraft amid buildings...”
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
The loss is overwhelming, the loss is senseless, the loss is everywhere, reflected upon everything, reflected in every name of every person that will exist. “Naming of Parts” separates the vehicles of violence from the surrounding world; “The Names” renders the surrounding world as suffering along with the victims.
So in both of these poems we have the characterizations of people and things defined by violence inscribed on nature; in “Naming of Parts,” this inscription shows a contrast between the normal business of the natural world and the normal business of a lecture on rifles – both routines coexist, and yet defy each other. In “The Names,” it shows a comparison, an indivisible relationship symbolizing the legacy of these people and the events surrounding their death – a legacy that will live on in everything, forever.