Kei Miller’s wonderful new book, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion combines uniformly strong writing with a mythic unifying theme, and even a few ventures into the realm of form. The collection comprises a spiritual/philosophical journey undertaken by a divided Self. This Self speaks in two voices, The Cartographer and The Rastaman, cleaved by contrasting cultural influences and perceptions of the point and purpose of the universe.
The Rasta position, that the world is a work-in-perpetual-progress, a seemingly relaxed (in reality very intricate) art rattled off by Jah presents itself in the second poem, ‘The Shrug of Jah’. Its construction is calculatedly loose. The poem sprawls across the page so that the readers must take their time with it:
It was nothing really –
just a shrug of Jah
something he hadn’t thought all the way through
Our world was neither here nor there
and neither here nor there
In a sense, the construction of the poem is a part of the subject. It seems careless, random, but subject and form can’t be separated in it any more than they can in the most rigorously structured sonnets.
‘Establishing the Metre’, the third poem in the book, is the mirror image of ‘The Shrug of Jah’. While the first found order-in-seeming-disorder, this poem is all about setting obvious limits (harmful, unnecessary) to the shape of the world; ‘Like tailors who must know their client’s girth / two men set out to find the sprawling measure of the earth.’ God spins the world whole-cloth; mankind cuts it down to fit the limits of our bodies. It is appropriate that this poem is ordered into a shape that bears the sharp slant of a blade:
Between France and Spain they dared to stretch
uncalibrated measuring tapes. And foot
by weary foot, they found a rhythm
the measure that exists in everything.
This book is also about poetry: specifically the difference, contrasts, and eventual fusion of European and Caribbean styles of story-telling.
These contrasts, opposing views that weave themselves in words, blood, and vision, are brought to bright relief in the stunning titular sequence. ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion’ alternates perspectives between the persona of The Cartographer and The Rastaman, his nemesis and guide. The Cartographer argues for naked rationality:
My job is
to untangle the tangled,
to unworry the concerned,
to guide you out from cul-de-sacs
into which you may have wrongly turned.
The Rastaman replies:
the mapmaker’s work is to make visible
all them things that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquest of pirates, like borders,
like the viral spread of government.
This sequence is scattered throughout the book; just when you think you’ve found the end of it, up pops another section or verse. The poems, the perspectives, surprise you with things that, given any real thought, should not have been surprising at all; ‘the rastaman had a PhD (from Glasgow’. The Rastaman is thoroughly familiar with European perspectives: he’s just rejected them.
‘The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion’ is interrupted by a series of incredibly complex poems (they reminded me of George Szirtes’s ‘Postcard’ series, found in Bad Machine) that contain at least three simultaneous levels of meaning. The ‘Place Name’ sequence provides a beautifully written (often brutal) history of the names of Jamaican towns. These towns are all conflict zones – the scraped-clean European perspective jostles painfully against the raw wounds of the slave population who made the land habitable. The section of the sequence titled ‘Edinburgh Castle’ tells the story of the Mad Doctor, a white man who ‘murdered’ whites and so became the island’s ‘first’ serial killer:
O skillful marksman who shot his way deep
into the annals of West Indian history – bestow new title
unto him who had such audacity to aim death at more
than just niggers: Caribbean’s first serial killer.
In a subtle echo of the attitude still found in racially divided parts of the world (see the recent murder of Trayvon Martin in America) his neighbours were only ‘killing’ blacks. History might not have recorded those deaths; luckily, the Rastaman is there to record them.
This is a subtle, complex book that rewards multiple readings. If you are tired of the mundane, the merely OK, if you want to read work that is beautiful, with a little blood at the bottom of it, pick up the latest by Kei Miller.
Bethany W Pope is an American writer currently living in Swindon. She recently earned a commendation in the Poetry London contest. Her latest full-length collection, Crown of Thorns, is available from Oneiros Books.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller is published by Carcanet Press, 2014, £9.95.
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)