Book six of my #20booksofsummer

"In the long ago beginning the world was unmapped.
It was nothing really – just a shrug of Jah
something he hadn’t thought all the way through.”

I’ve pledged to read and review 20 books for the blog between the beginning of June and the beginning of September (my #20booksofsummer reading challenge – the brainchild of Cathy at 746books), and to speed things along a little – while broadening my horizons – I swapped the book that I originally had in mind for this slender poetry collection by Jamaican-born poet and essayist Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. The book won the prestigious Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2014.

The title, which I love, already conjures up (“Tries“) the sense that the cartographer’s task may not be an easy one. The collection presents, often playfully, a debate between a cartographer, armed with his trusty scientific methods of delineating, controlling and mapping place, who comes up against the “rastaman’s” very different understanding of place, and his patient insistence that what is not plotted on any map can sometimes be as important as what is.

"The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?"

Miller demonstrates an affinity both with the cartographer and the rastaman, and acknowledges the duality that is present in our identities, and how easy it can be to make inaccurate assumptions about other people based on stereotyped beliefs about those identities. Miller has also indicated that in this work he hoped to show how it is wholly possible for two truths to co-exist independently of each other. But he does this with a sense of humour, not through some kind of turgid pontification in verse:

"But the cartographer, it is true,
dismisses too easily the rastaman's view,
has never read his provocative dissertation -
'Kepture Land' as Identity Reclamation
in Postcolonial Jamaica. Hell!
the cartographer did not even know
the rastaman had a PhD (from Glasgow
no less) in which, amongst other things, he cites
Sylvia Wynter's most cryptic essay: On How
We Mistook the Map for the Territory,
and Reimprisoned Ourselves in
An Unbearable Wrongness of Being..."

The collection contains evocative reflections on Jamaica, including the natural life of the island, a celebration of Jamaican Patois and an acknowledgement of a bloody colonial past (including the coming as a settler of the man reputed to be the island’s first serial killer, Scottish-born doctor Lewis Hutchinson, who killed at random and purely for sport).

There are also moving, loosely linked poems on the death of the poet’s mother (My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls), and in memory of a dearly loved friend. There is more humour, too, in poems such as When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks, which references the loss of a large cargo of bath toys in 1992 (“to them who scorned the limits of bathtubs, / refused to join a chorus of rub-a-dub;“), which have since been spotted at a wide variety of locations worldwide, and have consequently come to be monitored by scientists in order to inform their understanding of global currents.

I don’t often read poetry, as I have to slow right down and I struggle with that, finding myself skipping through the text, looking, I suppose for the characters! the plot!. But I had this book sitting in a pile from the library, and really enjoyed reading something totally outside my comfort zone.

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