Over the past few months, I’ve traveled from Hayward, California to Washington, D.C., then from D.C. to Manassas and Remington in Virginia, then to backwoods West Virginia—Hinton, Beckley, and the Irish Mountain area. Add to the list Manhattan and Pittsburgh and Lewisburg and Boston and Burlington, not to mention the ghost town of Centralia, PA, the Sierran foothill community of Magalia, CA, and Berkeley and San Francisco. Every landscape I observed through glass at high speeds had its own palpable character, however transient, and each sent vibrations through my writing hand. But how does one write about places traveled to, or through—what counts as sufficient, or even possible, from a passerby? And what are the ethical considerations involved in a decision to write “about” a particular location (as much as any poem is “about” its physical constituents and not the more transcendental ideas it uses those constituents to get at)? Crouched in my hotel room at night, or back at home with my handheld camera, it felt disingenuous to narrate anything more than my own experience, however ambiguous a delineation that is, of sieving through a given town or area on whatever highway it was that carried me. Even then, only surfaces (the facades of stores and houses, buildings and their architecture, who the townspeople appeared to be and how they dressed, what “oddities” I saw, etc.) were available for perusal. And a surface, like that of any map, can only tell so much.
What a map tells is a certain kind of information: the sort critical to navigation, research, and the once-every-decade federal census. But what makes a gathering of people distinctly them obviously isn’t reducible to mileage legends and interstate numbers; there’s no translation of a zeitgeist, or even a mood, analogous to hatch marks and dotted lines. So what’s the visitor to do? Set down the pen? The answer, at least for me, wasn’t to absolve myself of the responsibility of chasing the places I visited as subject matter. To admit that my short visits didn’t provide me with the education necessary to write completely ethical poems from the perspective of an external observer would be the simple solution, but it would also be the unproductive one: I would have to cede the inadequacy of my standpoint and label the endeavor hopeless. I would not write any poems. But in my mind, there’s a certain part of invention, a part both ambitious and pretentious, that wants to circumvent—if only temporarily, and for the purposes of experiment—perceived ethical obligation to reach into a truly ethical and truly poetic, in the Wordsworthian ineffable sense (though perhaps without the Anglo condescension), communion with the subject matter being snapshotted. (This is to assume, though, that—like the snapshot, that hackneyed motif—the poem “about” its subject can find some correspondence with the photograph, and that both, despite their flaws, offer roadways that can be traveled toward truth.) This is, in every sense, a textbook example of the ends justifying the means: a permutation of consequentialist ethics—where if I did it, and it’s good, then the how is irrelevant.
The temptation to abandon the whole project tugged at me. But while the perfect way to avoid writing an imperfect poem is to never write a poem, I also understood that this isn’t a realistic model for people who don’t plan on calling it quits. There has to be, I thought, an approach I could devise not to render moot the ethical concerns I was facing but to placate them within the realm of my ability. The logic of consequentialism is what eventually enticed me to think that maybe I could write poems about the places I’d been that were, in some regards, ethical. If I could forget, in the “now,” the inexorable flawed-ness of my vision and shed self-consciousness, then I could reach past that flawed-ness and into a space beyond myself. The poems produced wouldn’t be ethical in the sense of a universal ethics, but ethical in the sense of a) acknowledging the limits of my perspective while b) trying to eclipse them and c) not wallowing in them, or reifying them. The poems would acknowledge their ontologies as being inextricably bound to a surface-level intake. They would be photographs, stunted in what data they provided, and hindered by their own interpretations of that data. They would aspire to be—as much as any photograph can—honest.
But pictures can lie, too, as can lists of “facts”—the cumulative presentation of individual facts can snowball into a larger falsity. Despite this, I’d trust a picture of a place before a verbal account given secondhand: the act of selecting the frame is an act of narration, one that excludes as much as it includes, but not as much so as an oral recollection. The latter alters perceived reality in a more transgressive way, purporting to be capable of distilling the seen world into the written word. The photograph, on the other hand, strives toward empiricism; whether or not it achieves it is a different matter. In verbal or linguistic narrative, the reference points—the raw materials—that the photograph offers, however biased or partial, aren’t present. And while it’s clear that the photograph has its own ethical shortcomings, it seemed to me the more admirable model with regard to my project. I wanted to do away with the trappings of narrative cohesion, which would force me to contort my subject matter into its mold. Not everything I wanted to write about, I realized, was reducible to such preformatted comprehension.
Still, one way I’d be able to bypass the difficulties of writing about physical place and cultural geography would be to write from the vista of my own eye—my own “I”—and fully embrace the requirements of narrative. The politicization of subject matter that narrative invites might be better elucidated by diving into it. Wherever either the eye or the “I” landed, as with viewing a painting, would be satisfactorily organic; I would want to imitate, via the page, the motion of the eye. Writing with no pretense toward universality or objectivity, I’d be freed from any responsibility to either; I could set about the already-difficult-enough work of crafting a testament to my perspective that justified, from a literary standpoint, its being written. But I decided, squished into the seats of trains and airplanes and buses and cars, that I didn’t want to relegate myself to my own impulse to narrate. The self’s always there, but the self can be more or less there: I needed another approach, a new technique, that would allow me to avoid at least someof the embedded pitfalls of my gaze. Maybe it’s a delusion to think one can ever entirely escape one’s own perspective, but I was going to try as hard as I could. The poems I’d write would resist narrative while also acknowledging that every curated tidbit of text they contained were its vestiges. They would understand the ethical dubiousness ingrained in any attempt to describe the sky with a monocular, but would redeem themselves by refusing to be either complacent or comfortable with the scenery that came through that single lens.
Though the ethical questions I’m asking infest every work of literature that claims to speak for someone or something that’s not the self (again, reiterating the ambiguousness of the “self”—is it possible that what we observe is somehow “self” and therefore fair game?), I figured that, given my intent to write about individual towns, some probing of the literature on maps and cartography would prove fruitful. I wasn’t disappointed. The first work I came across was the product of a direct Google hit on “poems” + “topography”—a poem titled, not misleadingly, “Topography” by Sharon Olds. In it, the speaker and their companion experience the sort of fusion of the self and territory, map with the mapped, described by Jean Baudrillard in his text Simulacra and Simulation:
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: A hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.
The map sculpts the very geography it contends to represent, or founds a new geography—as in the beginning of Olds’s poem, where the human entities take on the names of the American regions they just traversed:
After we flew across the country we
got in bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York…
The poem echoes a trope taken up by Donald Justice in his poem “A Map of Love”: “Your face more than others’ faces / Maps the half-remembered places / I have come to while I slept—,” a penchant for the unknown that harks all the way back to Hamlet and his talk of death as that “undiscovered country.” Olds’s piece doesn’t help me answer any ethical question, necessarily, but confirms my suspicion about the complexity of those questions. The issue of borders—of what goes where, who gets called what, what is and what isn’t something: in short, the relations between entities—is what each of these questions has in common, and in turn what it brings to my goal of ultimately carving out an ethical and literarily workable method for writing about place. Her poem pins down the phenomenon by which the self identifies with not just landscapes but the apparatuses used to classify those landscapes, which is what Baudrillard was getting at. But if we’re going to have a notion of “self,” there are certain implications of this notion—namely that there’s an entire field of “not-self,” that there are subjects truly foreign, off-limits, and unable to be assimilated into a self. This is precisely my dilemma: for the purposes of my project I accept the existence of a “self,” of my existence as a singular speaker, and yet I somehow have to crack the glass cage keeping me from the “not-self.” Like I noted before, this might very well be impossible. If so, my effort to find a viable form was at worst misguided; at best, I’d device some form that sometimes “broke through” the limitations of the narrative “I” to get at the amorphous essence—or how it appeared to me when I experienced it—of a place. There’s an entire scheme of mapping (“self,” “not-self”) that must take place before I can begin to address cartography in the conventional sense. Larry Levis enters this scheme in the last stanza of his poem “The Map”:
At night I lie still, like Bolivia.
My furnaces turn blue.
My forests go dark.
You are a low range of hills, a Paraguay.
Now the clouds cover us both.
It is raining and the movie houses are open.
“Now the clouds cover us both”: questions about the map invite questions about the image—the map itself being an image, a surface representing surfaces. (In a fun instance of “mapping the map,” the Poetry Foundation classes the subjects of Levis’s poem as “Nature, Relationships, Men & Women, Jobs & Working, Landscapes & Pastorals, and Activities.”) Any of my attempts to wrangle with ethics would ultimately bank their resolutions on my ventures into that gray area where represented and representation blur. And this is tricky. In 1928-1929, the Belgian painter René Magritte constructed a painting of a pipe with an at-first perplexing notice appended beneath it: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. Magritte defended his work, titled “La trahison des images” [“The Treachery of Images”], against the critics it doubtlessly confounded and made uncomfortable (“How people reproached me for it!”), asking, “could you stuff my pipe?” The answer, of course, is no. Could you walk across a cartographical representation of the United States? It is a nod toward the real while being, under any scrutiny, thoroughly absurd. Baudrillard would say that a representation of territory fully disintegrates when it reaches the fourth stage of removal from being a “true” representation: when it no longer represents reality, perverts reality, or pretends to represent reality but simulates that which bears no relation to any reality but its own hermetic existence. The knowledge that effectively serves as a measuring stick for the real, or that which is ostensibly being represented, melds into the surreal to make, as Baudrillard calls it, the hyperreal. Even with the “most real” or “more real” representations, we still face Bonini’s paradox: that which has a high utility value is often not faithful to reality, but that which isfaithful to reality—a 1:1 map, for instance—has a low utility value.
My choice is a choice, then, between seeking reductiveness or seeking an unruly lacework of intricacy that I might never be able to parse. I don’t want to skip over the problems with this binary itself: any attempt to provide poetic data about a place will itself be a reductive attempt, as I can’t conceivably provide all possible data points—I have to cherry-pick some; my gesture toward complexity will be the thrusting out of a hand, not the throwing of my whole body. I say “seeking,” then, because I will inevitably be tethered to both what I didn’t include in the poem (how reductive I’m being) as well as what I did include (the level of ambient dissonance generated by what details I do present). My choice is a choice to move toward what I hope to achieve, aware that such a movement will never be entirely consummated. Everything will be both hindered and made possible by the “I.” Noah Eli Gordon, in his poem “Ideas Based on the Mapping of Ordinary Space” [which first appeared in Trickhouse; the excerpt is actually three lines but each bleeds over because of the blog's formatting], seems aware of this unavoidable predilection, how the self tries to rhapsodize the non-self into itself—and can do nothing else but this:
Turning elevation into an allegory again? Sure, clouds look like clouds
and take the shape of the limits of one’s imagination, but what I can’t
understand is if you think the world organizes itself around you…
The speaker admits that “clouds look like clouds,” granting them some sort of self-determinacy, but then joins this claim with the contradiction that they “take the shape of the limits of one’s imagination” and are formed by human interpretation; the landscape appears to us to be what it is, but what it is is just how it appears to us. The string is tied to its own end; the hermeneutic snake swallows its own tail. The speaker is guilty of their own initial interrogative—“Turning elevation into an allegory again?”—in doubting the addressee’s situation of their own self in relation to the world; the question is a denial of one self’s organization and the proposal of another: that of the narrator, which, for all we know, is no more reasonable than the person who thinks “the world organizes itself” around them. Gordon’s jests at the search for understanding via the helplessly troubled construction of representational models doesn’t end there, though. “Understanding is not a table,” the speaker flatly announces in “All a Symbol’s Ever Done for Us is Reductive.” This is not a pipe—but, on one level of Baudrillard’s taxonomy, it is. Reductiveness is bad—but this is another aphorism, another oversimplified mantra. That which is accurate (and, by extension, that which is most ethical) is incommunicable solely by virtue of its inability to be condensed into forms reductive enough to be communicated; the “true” as a wavelength that can be tapped into but never broadcasted.
What Olds and Levis and Justice attempt to articulate, John Donne—in “Hymn to God, My God, in my Sickness”—both articulates and delimits. The speaker’s prone body, a “flat map” before the physicians, is decidedly no less a map than a map proper; relativity about scale, latitude, and longitude are infused into a metaphysic that joins death with rebirth in a consilient way:
I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
For, though those currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps—and I am one—are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
Is the Pacific sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar?
My desire to write about the specific locations my travels brought me through ended up calling into question my own coordinates: where, in fact, was I writing from? Did I hail from the Pacific, or from Jerusalem? Where did the self that would manifest in my work originate? Then, as now, I was unable to tell. But I knew that my “I” was an “I,” a fragment of some absolute (to ape Hegel) leaning out from that absolute, but not breaking with it, to glimpse it. Like the congealing narrative facets of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a compilation of the poetic information provided by these fragment-witnesses might give me a preliminary silhouette of the “absolute”—the whole, the gestalt, the totality that renders the project of a differentiating ethics moot—and thereby be a noble, ethical cause. Was this what I should work toward? A continual commitment to data-gathering with a grasp of the fact of my own selective vision, one in which I left the work of meaning-making up to someone else? Meaning-making could mean narrative, or it could mean other conduits of meaning. But with my poems, I wanted to return to this act of gathering; I wanted the pieces to serve as baskets of material I’d deemed “useful” for purpose of sneaking into the reality shielded by the screen of text. These baskets would be curated, just as any data set is curated. Some stimuli are static—detritus in the way of the transmission. (Without opening another Pandora’s box I should clarify, here, that my appropriation of scientific terminology is purely coincidental; in no way do I think poetry should aspire to the same procedures and principles of the scientific process. My explanation of my place-poems as containers of impressions is motivated by my search for an ethical poetics—ethics being an area that science, by and large, remains quiet about.)
I wanted my poems, then, to be like topographical maps: I wanted them to acknowledge their nature as surfaces, and to provide information about these surfaces, but—if successful—to function in such a way that surpassed each surface. In keeping with what I’ve said above, I wanted to move toward the elimination of narrative imposition while knowing that an utter elimination of narrative wouldn’t be possible. Still, it was my intention to move away from its boundaries as much as I could. The poems’ furnishing of sense-based details is not an invitation for the invention of narrative on the side of the reader, but toward a replication of the original experience. And in this way, the poems end up being less about place and more about the qualities of my own immersion into that place: they are, in my mind, more honest about their epistemological limitations, less monuments to locales than to my perspective. This critical model bears implications for the idea of objectivity itself; regardless of what any poem is superficially “about,” then, it is always in one way or another “about” the self. The series—titled “Topographed” (from the Greek topos, “place,” and graphia, “writing”) to reiterate the motif of surfaces and how I would dissect them—incorporates personal observations, found text and overhead language, speculation, and psychological space to simulate a mental geography “leashed” to a physical one—my experience and where it occurred as two influences acting on each other. The results deny aesthetic “prettiness,” or “cleanliness,” as with these excerpt from pieces titled “Topographed: Remington, Va./Rappahannock Station/Culpeper, Va.”, “Topographed: Culpeper, Va./Lewisburg, Pa.,” and “West Virginia; Highway 26, Interstate 79,” in sequence [the formatting, which heeds the demands of Olsen in its inhabitation of the page’s whole field, can’t be reproduced without some error in blog format]:
—“‘Rappahannock’ means ‘River of Swift Rising Waters’ in the Manahoac Indian language”
he says he has the deck in a warehouse, missing a few of the Major Arcana—
Gen. Howard, March 28, 1862: I found the Rappahannock Bridge
a burning mass when I reached it.
without warning the barbed wire starts, the cyclone fencing’s unquote—you say unquote—flags on graves,
hand’s final shudder
—“Things would become more exciting for his regiment;”
the man with the antique guitar wants to give me his snapped string
a length of possible—in the grass, ticks & lyme
the attempt to keep everyone you love in one place: I once scooped deadly water
from a stream but it sluiced through the teeth
of my fingers
(outside the bar:) DJ 2NITE
despite appearances or lore there is no such thing as a merciful entrance
only a leaving—
a thousand eyes in the back of a lumber truck: eyes or years: ringed while living, ringed while dead
snagged on Appalachia’s wave, we discuss the overuse of the word “juxtapose”
a church cleft open: swallows exit
says she’ll save the picture for me if I’ll wait—as long as you need to take lunch—but I’m headed south
garland of a recluse’s web under the bridge; thunder or the tooth-grit
of rubber and steel; litter cataloged into mosaic
a flag so dark even Dixie’s stars eclipsed
every third tree: KEEP OUT
The above pieces, to my mind, create hybrids out of the perceptual inputs of locations: just as they attempt to shrug off narrative while conscious their inability to totally disown it, so they also try to account for a variety of perceptual components: auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory, etc. The logic of how they are arranged is an intuitive logic, one not subsumed beneath any arc or fettered to any form. Each might very well rely on its own artifice, but by rejecting the goal of writing “about” a place in a way that is linearly comprehensible, I try to avoid doubly imposing artifice. These poems—if successful, which is not for me to say—are doorways into a psychological state that is prejudiced (it judges some stimuli as more analysis-worthy than others) and blind (by virtue of my being only one person and having certain biologically-predetermined ways of being in the world, there are some materials I will never have access to but which are might well be as important as the ones I’ve included), but which is perhaps more ethically responsible, considering my status as visitor, than subjecting to the edifices of predetermined meaning that which I haven’t had time to meaningfully explore. Here are my raw materials, tainted though they might be. Build from them what you will—or build nothing at all.
Maybe this is a solution: to tell it slant, but not too slant. I wanted a more accurate map, but not one so accurate that it itself is the territory, or is a Baudrillardian simulacrum—a truly alien, new reality not subject to any interpretational or relational mechanism. The poems aim to provide physical “tags,” signposts that direct the experience of the poem toward the psychological state of my interaction with the particular “where,” be it city, freeway, district, or province. The “where” and the psychological state are intertwined; I hope that, by equipping the page with details appointed to the task of representing this state, the poem itself enters the general vicinity of the “where.” These are no well-wrought urns, but the iron—and, pending a reader, the forge. I haven’t rid myself of the problem of reductiveness versus complexity, but transitioned into an arena where I can more consciously and candidly address that two-pronged enigma. This is to return to Bonini’s paradox: to choose between functional but dishonest simplicity or dysfunctional but honest irreducibility. If a 1:1 poetic map were possible—if it were possible to write a poem that actually did catalog every perceivable detail about a place in a manner that didn’t imply a filter (which it’s not)—and usable, then that, as far as ethics are concerned, would be the thing to aim for. But the bizarre thing here is that, if one could write such a poem, it would resemble identically the experience it aimed to replicate: so why write a poem at all? Perhaps to recreate and preserve the experience idiosyncratic to one individual, assuming that experience couldn’t be had by others. At any rate, the faculties of language don’t seem to allow for this—and here I think of Laurence Sterne’s character Tristram Shandy, who spends a year writing down the events of one day in his biography. But I also have to ask: is such complexity, when represented with any degree of accuracy, really useful for anyone? Can it provide that empathetic and revelatory experience whereby one develops a deeper understanding of, and stronger connection with, the subject matter? Some amount of reductiveness might be our only answer—that or the territory itself. In his 1893 work Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Lewis Carroll describes a map with the scale of 1:1 miles. A character, finding pragmatic problems with this, concedes that “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
It does nearly as well, i.e. is functionally dysfunctional. Borges, in On Exactitude in Science, describes a much less optimistic view of what happens when a map achieves such accuracy that it closely resembles its territory:
In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography saw the vast Map to be Useless and permitted it to decay and fray under the Sun and winters.
In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; and in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
In Borges’s case, cartography’s reliance on levels of distortion accomplish its task of description condemns it to an utter, Ozymandias-esque failure. But this need not always be the result. Returning to Carroll, witness a selection from the Bellman’s speech in The Hunting of the Snark:
He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!
“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!”
The blank map being, like the unwritten poem, the most ethical of options in that it does nothing and so can do no wrong. No panegyric to accuracy—and certainly not all I’ve written above to defend my praxis—can afford to ignore the idea that, in order to be intelligible, perfect accuracy should be discarded. And maybe, as far as writing poems goes, this is how it both is and should be. But suppose we do want accuracy, if the object itself is all that’s necessary for accuracy (doing away with the project of representation); why write poetry or create any other representational models? Why sit down with the Cartesian grid and funnel the world into it? Perhaps because each “representation” is, in fact, a new object, a simulacrum in Baudrillard’s sense that it is not “that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” This is not a pipe becomes This is “This is not a pipe”: a hyperreal entity reminiscent of realities familiar to us but which actually bears no restricting connection to them at all. Some, like Gregory Bateson in his 1972 essay “Form, Substance, and Difference,” are doubtful of the cartographical premise, be it in poems or in maps, that representations hold any semblance of the real territory at all. “What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map,” he writes, “and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps.” We are stuck without recourse in the eye and its “I”; for me to testify to a place is strictly for me to talk about my experience of that place. I can never ethically talk “about” the place—but I can, and should, try to, because obtaining the real is unfeasible. I teeter along Bonini’s tightrope but keep my eyes on the compass rose.
These difficulties aside, I do think that poems can tell us important information about the human topography and cultural geography of places, information that might be invisible to the measuring sticks of so-called hard science. There have been enterprises to adopt the poem as a tool by which to “map” the world; www.poetryatlas.com is a directory for poems “about” locations, for instance. Poems can help us process not just the modern environment but its ancestry and its progeny, where it’s headed. The New Yorker’s “abstract” to John Ashbery’s 2011 translation of Rimbaud’s “Cities (I)” reads “The official acropolis beggars the most colossal conceptions of modern barbarity.” There’s much to be ascertained from productive, methodologically responsible poetic forays into the discipline of “geography,” broadly defined—even if each acropolis becomes a necropolis when embalmed onto the page. In many ways, that which is not mapped doesn’t exist—at least not in the minds of those who require tangible representations of the “real” to cling to. The yearning for reassurance of our own existence lets us encounter ourselves on the scale of doppelgängers; the 5,600 lb. globe Eartha is one example, the Mappamondo della Pace another. To ignore this impulse—to toss out the pursuit of representation, as I’d thought of when I entertained the idea of simply not writing poems discussing where I’d been—isn’t an acceptable answer. There is important ethical and empathetic work to be done in exploring, however unsoundly, the “other”—especially when the “self” may be the “other.” That which is unmapped becomes less real than it would be if it were mapped. The benefit outweighs the cost, which can be high. In Peter Carey’s story “Do You Love Me?”, the forgotten began to fray into unreality; in Matt Bell’s “The Cartographer’s Girl,” a mapmaker struggles, despite or because of the laws of his craft, to trace his way back to his love. The poem—like the story, like any attempt to make sense of what we see in front of us—has a map-like character, and it too purports to represent “reality” and all its labyrinthine passageways. The poem, like Baudrillard’s simulacrum, is reality sui generis. It self-generates. It cannot help but be true on its own terms; on its own terms, it is true. It is tautological, unsolvable, but fiercely necessary to any ethical poetics as the tug-of-war between symbol and the spectrum from which it’s pulled continues: “Shall I confess who I am?” Donald Justice’s speaker asks in The Tourist from Syracuse. “My name is all names, or none.”