As a literature professor, Anca Vlasopolos is not unfamiliar with the question, “What am I looking for in this poem?” and her newest work, Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), flips the inquiry on its head, “What is the poem looking for?” The work plays upon itself, questions itself and opens spaces rather than defines them. Her collection is troubling and delightful, playful and buoyant. The title itself, with a humble (and perhaps jocular) self-corrective included, is played out on each page. Or, considering Vlasopolos’ jaunty interplay between form and content, “drawing board” might be a better term.
Vlasopolos’ primary concern is how attempting to imagine a landscape, a world often constrict our experience of such. Early on, she appears to string poems in dynamic tension between two polarities: the removed yet meticulous mapping of the world by Geradus Mercator and the intuitive, experiential and accessible cartography of Nathaniel Bowditch. According to Vlasopolos, Mercator’s maps distorted the world from a spherical mystery to a two-dimensional fact, disingenuously amalgamating locations in order to fit into a particular order. Meanwhile Bowditch, she notes, taught ordinary sailors how to read the ocean in order to discover where they were inside it and how to deal with that knowledge.
Vlasopolos introduces both trajectories through the forms of the poems themselves. She interchangeably writes poems that move vertically with little change and ones that seem to argue within themselves. In “Mercator Makes Maps”, she directly addresses Mercator, gently indicting his rough treatment of the earth’s form. “did you,” she asks,
with trembling fingers
nail to the wall
emptied of loving roundness
The poem itself seems to struggle against its own form, attempting to transcend itself to express the full thrust of its being. Later on, “Dead Reckoning”, dedicated to Bowditch, is unresolvable, contrapuntal and appears to speak in two voices that both answer and ignore each other.
Vlasopolos uses lack of indentation to indicate center of the poems and variegated spacing techniques to demonstrate the predicate, the wilier of the two. Unlike “Mercator Makes Maps”, which conflates its subject and predicate into an orderly and inescapable unity, “Dead Reckoning” not only loosens the predicate from the subject but has it speak first. These “Bowditch poems”, in their vibrant shifts in indentation, in the unpredictability of the next line’s placement, seem to be a landscape themselves. In this way, the structured form used in poems like “Mercator Makes Maps” appears as an observer of the unpredictability of the natural landscape.
Vlasopolos’ other concern, one which underlies her Bowditch/Mercator binary, is the variety of inexpressible maps that are charted in human emotions, animal and human migrations and the psychic cartography of the human soul. In “Vacant Skies”, the protagonists, an unnamed “we”, suddenly appear “from that first bolt striking primordial soup” and “have looked/ up”. The skies are not charted or described but simply gazed upon. The skies provide only questions and the observers on the ground can only wonder about their place in the “shores of blood-dark sea” and the “skies darkened at equinox” by “winged nations”. In “Empty Spoons”, established names of place – “Chukotka”, “Bangladesh”, “Myanmar” – give the illusion of orientation, but whatever abstract solidity names provide is subverted by the complexity of the qualitative migrations that constitute the “named” space. Like most of the poems in the collection, Vlasopolos uses birds as metaphors for migrations that flippantly disregard human made maps imprinted into soil and sea. The “poverty strangled” bird casually links Siberia and Myanmar. Distances of centuries and years are reinterpreted by “the piper”, which “sees a world we have no eyes for/ follows a track inscribed inside her”. In the next line, Vlasopolos notes that we can’t even trust the piper as a reliable measure. Vlasopolos notes that “her wings” are the “span of child’s hand. Mercator maps will not help us here, then. We’ll have to figure out the world through gazing at the space around us. The earth’s strict linear barriers are nonexistent. In many ways, a true cartography is purely eminent and it changes from moment to moment. It errs according to access to food, water, instinct, warmth and whim.
If one line could serve as the emergent “center” of Vlasopolos’ project in Cartographies of Scale (and Wing), then it’s a short couplet from “Modern Threats”, one of the last poems in the collection
now what pursues us
is merely what we’ve done
We are the shadows we trace on the ground. We are the lines we scrawl over the ground. The borders we create are the same ones that hem us in, constrict us and create the problems that we seem to want to ameliorate. Vlasopolos’ lines, whether after Mercator or Bowditch, are always loose and airy. They are intentional. Like Lucille Clifton, she uses silence as a coordinate that opens a space of play rather than denote an infertile field of barriers. She writes poems that are meant to be read upright, sideways, upside down or diagonal. She writes verse that is a map in the same way that Borges’ Book of Sand is a book. She is a fascinating poet who delights as much as intrigues and deserves to be read again and again. Cartographies is a treasure to read and a joy to contemplate.
About the reviewer:
Brennan Burnside’s work has been featured most recently in Gold Dust, 3Elements Review, Lyre Lyre, Queen’s Head, lux and Lost Coast Review. His chapbook, Room Studies, is on sale from Dink Press. He lives and works near Philly