Not James
by James Penha

His European father named
my father Jacques. Jacques
LeRoi. He never used it. Not
on his taxes, not
on his marriage certificate, not
on his grave. Eternally,
he was Jack L. Nobody knew
otherwise, but because Grandpa
still lived when I was born, Dad winked:
translated me into James
at my Christening. Everywhere else
the devil Jacky. Junior.
Jacky, my father’s son;
never ever Jimmy
or Jim
or, God forbid, Jamie . . .
except by those who revealed
with their overly familiar appellation
that they did not know me at all.

With how many teachers
and professors and employers did I hear
“If your name is James
why are you Jack?”
and so explain away James
to become to them Jack.

But second-grade teacher Mrs. Liebel
refused to address me as anything
but James,
required me to head every paper James,
forced me to give my locker to James.
“If you don’t want to be James
in my classroom,
your mother will have to write a note,” said Mrs Liebel.
My mother wrote; I remained James.
My mother came to Open School Night, and Mrs. Liebel
agreed to call me Jacky,
but on Monday I was James.
Every school day for a year James.

Why torture a child so blithely, so needlessly,
so temporarily with a name imposed?
Mrs. Liebel was good to me
in every other way:
she praised my work;
she awarded me good grades;
she posted my poems — by James
— on bulletin boards.

Was I somehow the cause
as well as the victim
of her obsession. Did trauma
lie within Mrs. Liebel?
Did she hate ceding her maiden name
or having it truncated at Ellis Island
or did she lose family who shared her name
to the gas?

The timing allowed it.

I am ever Jack to lovers and friends,
but now the nom of my plume forgives.

PHOTOGRAPH: James Penha at 65.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A native New Yorker, James Penha has lived for the past quarter-century in Indonesia. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and in poetry. Snakes and Angels, a collection of his adaptations of classic Indonesian folk tales, won the 2009 Cervena Barva Press fiction chapbook contest; No Bones to Carry, a volume of his poetry, earned the 2007 New Sins Press Editors’ Choice Award. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry.