The Imagery of Genesis in Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts"

The two main diction patterns of "Naming of Parts" suggest an allusion to the second creation account in Genesis. The repetition of "gardens" and garden images recalls Eden (5, 11, 29). After creating Adam from the soil and before the rest of creation, "The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it" (2:15). The repeated use of "naming" and "call" suggests the text which follows the man’s installation in the nascent garden (1, 4, 6, 30) (21, 24, 25).

The Lord God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all(2:19-20).

The poem portrays the soldiers in these same two roles: namers and occupants of a garden. However, in the poem, humanity’s role is shown far less benevolent, far less competent, and far less in harmony with his world. This juxtaposition between harmony with nature and the discordant role of the military in the natural world is drawn clearly and repeatedly by the poem. A strong theme of the poem is that war disturbs the balance of the natural order.

Reed presents a vision of the appropriate balance of the world in the sections of the poem which describe the garden. It garden is a symbol of life and beauty: a magical place, at once "silent" and "eloquent" (11). There "blossoms are fragile and motionless," not to mention better trained than the soldiers (16-17). The poet reserves all of the figurative language for nature: "the safety-catch… is always released;" but "Japonica / glistens like coral" (Reed’s only simile) (13, 4-5). In the garden, we see the personification of branches which "hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures" (11) We are told of blossoms that "are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see / any one them using their finger" (17-18). We witness bees "assaulting and fumbling the flowers" (23). As the atecedents to the pronoun, the bees even usurp the power to name: "they call it easing the Spring" – a subtle twist on the name given by the soldiers (24). The diction further supports a vision of a garden which is gentle, peaceful and harmonious. The garden and its parts are "silent, eloquent," "fragile and motionless" (11, 17). The beauty of the garden is reminiscent of Eden: the perfect model for a symbol of life. In Sumerian Eden means "fertile plain;" in Hebrew it means "garden of delight." The Septuagint renders Eden into the Greek paradise, or "pleasure park." The diction cited above certainly conveys the image of delight and pleasure.

The use of bees as a paradigm for natural orderserves to create an ironic comparison with the soldiers. At first glance, the distinction between the bees and the soldiers is not so clear. Like the soldiers the bees are part of a highly structured, highly regimented society. However, the poem clearly identifies the bees with their role in the natural order by first describing them in relation to the flowers. The soldiers are never described at all, let alone in relationship to the natural world. Furthermore, the bees serve a vital role: both crucial and life-giving. Their activity results in pollination which sustains the garden and maintains balance.

The military, in contrast, is an inadequate paradigm for order. The soldiers are continually shown to be lacking by the repeated phrase: "which in our case we have not got" (12, 28). The soldiers lack both the "silent, eloquent gestures" of the branches and the "point of balance," which literally refers to a part of the gun but says much more about the role of the soldiers in their world (11, 27). The daily ritual of cleaning the guns is shown to be inadequate by the very fact that it must be performed daily. The "daily cleaning" is ineffective to make the guns truly clean, that is, in harmony with the natural order (2). The repeated toil of the soldiers to clean their weapons recalls Adam after the Fall when he receives his fate: "cursed be the ground because of you! In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life" (Gn. 3:17b).

The disruptive effects of war on the natural order are shown through contrasts between the soldiers and the garden. The bees are compared to the soldiers and parody them by their "assaulting and fumbling the flowers" (23). Bees assault flowers to the benefit of the flowers. Men assault men in battle to the detriment of the other. Where the assault of the bees brings life, men with guns bring death. A second comparison is implied between the fresh cleanliness of the garden, whose "Japonica / glistens like coral" and the soldier’s guns with their need for "daily cleaning" (4-5, 2). The ironic contrast is that the garden, grounded in dirt, is effortlessly clean while the soldiers must clean their guns repeatedly. The structure of the poem also serves to make the comparison to nature’s advantage. Each stanza is split between the dry, unimaginative language of the first speaker, presumably the drill sergeant and the poetic language used by the second speaker, perhaps one of the men in the squad, to describe nature. The use of repetition and near-repetition of phrases is ironic due to the placement of the repeated phrases in very different contexts. In each instance, nature is shown to be better at the same activities. The instructor insists that the men "not let [him] / see anyone using his finger" (14-15). At the end of the same stanza, the blossoms are seen "never letting anyone see / any one of them using their finger" (17-18). Although not explicitly stated in the poem, perhaps the soldiers should take a cue from the blossoms and not use their fingers, especially not on the trigger. The garden is repeatedly shown to have that which "in our case we have not got" (12, 28). While the soldiers fondle their guns and "slide it rapidly backwards and forwards" to no productive end, the bees fly "rapidly backwards and forwards" pollinating (21, 22). The sexual imagery associated with the soldiers and their guns further establishes the contrast between them and nature. The use of "the bolt… to open the breech" is evocative of a rape (19-20). This is supported by making the requisite "strength" rather than care (16, 26). The soldiers’ ability to grab the bolt and "slide it rapidly backwards and forwards" is blatantly suggestive of masturbation (21). They even "call this / easing the spring" (21-22). As the last stanza states "it is perfectly easy / if you have any strength in your thumb" (25-26). The sexual imagery is characterized by a lack of productivity and a lack of mutuality. This is in sharp contrast to the natural order, in which every means has its proper end and every action takes place in a symbiotic web of life. Once again, the soldiers fall short where the bees succeed.

Guns and gardens, soldiers and bees: the poem relates the unrelated in order to draw a clear dichotomy between the forces of life and the forces of death. However, the poem goes further than merely contrasting opposites. The structure and language of the poem combine to demonstrate how one should become the other. The eschatological hope expressed by the harmonious image of this Eden begs and demands a transformation or conversion into communion with the natural order. The poem demonstrates that war is contrary to nature.

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By Michael Quieto, November 1997, all rights reserved.