“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.”---Oscar Wilde
A poem has been likened to many things; here I’d like to consider how it resembles a map. Though maps are allegedly dutiful, accurate recordings of empirical realities---in some ways the opposite of a poem---as in poems one can “map” anything. Map-making can also show us the way that poems, too, reflect choices: what to leave on or off, what scale, and what orientation will prevail.
Just as there are dominant maps, or published views of reality, there are maps that show alternative orientations. Here is one that overturns a North American orientation, to center it around Australia, in Stuart McArthur’s, “Universal Corrective Map of the World.”
Of course, not only individual poems work this way; the same goes for literary journals’ Table of Contents (TOC), a publisher’s author list, or an agent’s “stable.” They are all, also, maps of particular “areas” that, to their inhabitants, probably just seem “normal,” “usual.”
Here is a map that exaggerates this sense of a “usual,” or dominant, view. In Ernest Dudley Chase’s “The United States as Viewed by California” (1940), the rest of the country is compressed, its topographical, agricultural, and cultural details erased, while California’s are figurative and idealized, symbolized in the California-centric smiling sun, and the horn of plenty. It is playful, of course; it doesn’t attempt accuracy, but consciously plays on its own narrowness. & If it is narrow, its aesthetic and rhetorical choices are awake inside of, or pointing to its own, view.
It was a map---or, a TOC—that was the center of one of last year’s race-related firestorms; namely, the one that Rita Dove and Penguin came up with, which Helen Vendler quite publicly critiqued. Vendler’s response shows another map, “whiteness,” one particular kind of unthinkable, or undiscovered country.
But, however undiscovered---to some---this map might be, it is its boundaries that Vendler attempted to protect when she declared that, in Dove’s TOC, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and asks, “why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome.” “Multicultural” is used euphemistically here to highlight a border, to protect the aesthetically-valuable territory of “lasting fame.”
Not that I don't have my own problems with the Dove/Penguin project, but I'm disturbed by the fact that, when she says, “there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff,” the undiscovered country appears. “Objectivity” is, of course, metonymy, for there is no neutral measurement; it is not time, but human beings, who “objectively” measure art. Power doesn't have anything to do with aesthetic quality; it just gets a stage, a spotlight, and, most of all, a guard to keep others from getting at that hot mic. But, hidden from Vendler's view---and many others'---is the observation that her map, this map, resembles so many other prominent maps (prizes, TOCs, back lists) of Poetry Land.
Fortunately, some maps, like some poems, rewrite their job completely. Here, Lordy Rodriguez’s: Fifty-Five States” shows a map that could hardly be called accurate, at least by geographical standards. But those are not its aims; in fact, the map’s work is to disrupt.
By rearranging and resizing the embodiments of each state (as well as adding a few), it uncovers what, in the map’s “normal” arrangement, becomes encoded and invisible. Associations that we might have with a state’s strength or personality (“Texas tough” now looks more like the permeable, water-boundaries of Indonesia or Japan; “Colorado big sky” now looks-East Coast-tight) become overturned in this geographically-ruptured playing field.
Likewise, here’s Harryette Mullen’s poem-map, which similarly identifies and exaggerates euphemism to show the orientation of whiteness and its tendency toward territorial protection. Like the map of California, Mullen’s poem plays with the legalistic, disclaimer-idiom to show how whiteness enforces its power, framing its own abuses as others’ “offenses” against pseudo-agreed-upon rules. From “We are Not Responsible,” in Sleeping with the Dictionary:
We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. We can-
not guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions. We
do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for hand-
outs. We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone…
Before taking off, please extinguish your smoldering resent-
ments…Step aside, please, while our officer
inspects your bad attitude…
Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible
for what happens to you.
Let us be unfaithful to familiar representations, to familiar territory. This is of course a fine formula for originality in any poem, but in the case of poems about public or “touchy” subjects, it is all the more important. I am interested in the ways that a poem can map not only the “personal,” but what that personal reflects. What different or disrupted view can be fit on a poem’s map? Especially of what is unthinkable, and thus “not there.” How can a poem enter that space?
I’m not speaking here as a critic, of “you” or “them;” I’m writing as someone who has looked at her own poems, choices of authors for syllabi or readings, my own mind-space. My mind and body is marked by the people, ideas, and landscapes I’ve grown up in, and I see in myself this unknown, unthinkable---this undiscovered country.