Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion – Kei Miller

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, won the Forward prize for the best poetry collection in 2014, also in this year the writer Kei Miller’s name was amongst the 20 "Next Generation Poets", a prestigious list compiled every ten years by the Poetry Book Society with the aim of recognising the poets most likely to go on to greater success. Past receivers of this recognition have been writers of calibre such as Seamus Heaney, Jamie McKendrick, Jean Sprackland, Pascale Petit, Michael Hofmann, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald and Owen Sheers.

Establishing the Metre

Like tailors who must know their client’s girth
  two men set out to find the sprawling measure of the earth.
    They walked the curve from Rodez to Barcelona,
       and Barcelona to Dunkirk. Such a pilgrimage!
         They did not call it inches, miles or chains –
            this distance which as yet had no clear name.
              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.

In this collection Kei Miller pits one system of knowledge, one ideology of understanding a place or territory against a totally different method, one that comes complete with its own terminology and ways of communicating such ideas. Through the characters of the Cartographer and the Rasta man, we follow a journey as the cartographer armed with all the weaponry of Cartesian logic attempts to assume control over a place by mapping and naming it in a scientific unbiased way. The Rasta man puts forward the notion that such a mechanistic interpretation of physical nature can never truly name a place as every place name comes freighted with its own history, its own surfeit of bias and prejudices, making a totally nonpartisan approach likely to fail before the first line scores the blank sheet. As the book unfolds we follow the dialogue of these two characters, with the cartographer finally conceding that his approach would not lead to him mapping a route to Zion. The book also through this dialogue highlights the struggle between the idea of Zion as a utopian place of unity, peace and freedom and its opposition “Babylon", the oppressing and exploiting system of the materialistic modern world.

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

I. in which the Cartographer explains himself

You might say
my job is not
to lose myself exactly
but to imagine
what loss might feel like –
the sudden creeping pace,
the consultation with trees and blue
fences and whatever else
might prove a landmark.
My job is to imagine the widening
of the unfamiliar and also
the widening ache of it;
to anticipate the ironic
question: how did we find
ourselves here? 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.


II. in which the rastaman disagrees

The rastaman has another reasoning.
He says – now that man’s job is never straight-
forward or easy. Him work is to make thin and crushable
all that is big and as real as ourselves: is to make flat
all that is high and rolling: is to make invisible and wutliss
plenty things that poor people cyaa do without – like board
houses, and the corner shop from which Miss Katie sell
her famous peanut porridge. And then again
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 governments

Whilst researching for this collection of poetry I realised that Kei Miller was the third poet I had posted on from the Next Generation Poets 2014, the other two being Helen Mort and Kate Tempest, also I had posted on another poet shortlisted for this award (Liz Berry) and came to realise how much the idea of identity/names play a part in these works. Sometimes they are specific individuals or regions and sometimes it’s more of an idea of a place whether this is the past (mythical or historic) or related to some ideology. It would appear that this theme is prevalent at this moment, as though it was part of the zeitgeist – I guess this kind of makes sense as with the current world situation and the idea of borders being in a constant flux, also with the idea of a nation’s identity being constantly redefined as immigrants add their own identities into how a nation perceives itself, although this flow has always happened it does seem that at this moment in time, the pace has quickened causing people to question who and what they are, and also leads to some individuals trying to set a definitive classification of what represents one nations persona and those who do not fit that image are deemed unwelcome - making this a very relevant collection. This collection like some of the others mentioned above is also not afraid to use dialect or patois, to identify itself and its characters, making it another method of mapping the somewhere with all the meaning, all the weight that the language used carries.

xx. in which the cartographer tells of the rastaman

The cartographer sucks his teeth
and says – every language, even yours,
is a partial map of the world – it is
the man who never learnt the word
“scrupe” – sound of silk or chiffon moving
against a floor – such a man would not know
how to listen for the scrape of a bride’s dress.
And how much life is land to which
we have no access? How much
have we not seen or felt or heard
because there was no word
for it – at least no word we knew?
We speak to navigate ourselves
away from dark corners and we become,
each one of us, cartographers.

Kei Miller was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He read English at the University of the West Indies, but dropped out short of graduation. However, while studying there, he befriended Mervyn Morris, who encouraged his writing. Afterward, Miller began publishing widely throughout the Caribbean. In 2004, he left for England to study for an MA in Creative Writing (The Novel) at Manchester Metropolitan University under the tutelage of poet and scholar Michael Schmidt. Miller later completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. In 2006, his first book of poetry was released, Kingdom of Empty Bellies (Heaventree Press). It was shortly followed by a collection of short stories, The Fear of Stones, (which partly explores issues of Jamaican homophobia). The collection was shortlisted in 2007 for a Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the category of Best First Book (Canada or Caribbean). His second collection of poetry, There Is an Anger That Moves, was published in 2007 by Carcanet Pressing. In the years since his first collection was published he has produced two novels, a short story collection, three more poetry collections and a book of “essays and prophecies”- he is also a prolific blogger and tweeter.  He attributes his productivity partly to his recently diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (Wiki)

Kei Miller was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He read English at the University of the West Indies, but dropped out short of graduation. However, while studying there, he befriended Mervyn Morris, who encouraged his writing. Afterward, Miller began publishing widely throughout the Caribbean. In 2004, he left for England to study for an MA in Creative Writing (The Novel) at Manchester Metropolitan University under the tutelage of poet and scholar Michael Schmidt. Miller later completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. In 2006, his first book of poetry was released, Kingdom of Empty Bellies (Heaventree Press). It was shortly followed by a collection of short stories, The Fear of Stones, (which partly explores issues of Jamaican homophobia). The collection was shortlisted in 2007 for a Commonwealth Writers' Prize in the category of Best First Book (Canada or Caribbean). His second collection of poetry, There Is an Anger That Moves, was published in 2007 by Carcanet Pressing. In the years since his first collection was published he has produced two novels, a short story collection, three more poetry collections and a book of “essays and prophecies”- he is also a prolific blogger and tweeter.  He attributes his productivity partly to his recently diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (Wiki)


Distance

Distance is always reduced at night
The drive from Kingston to Montego Bay is not so far
Nor the distance between ourselves and the stars
And at night there is almost nothing between
The things we say, and the things we mean,




2 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

This is really neat verse.

I like the themes that the poetry tackles. Approaching this from the direction of maps and place names verses genuine human feeling seems very creative.

Parrish Lantern said...

Hi Brian I thought so to