Olivia McCannon, “Map”

It was a pleasure and privilege to hear Olivia McCannon reading for Poets and Players. Some of the poems she read were very moving in quite a straightforward way. Others were more oblique, among them “Map”, which I thought I’d share with you. You can find it in the Poetry Library Archives at http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=16823

It isn’t a difficult poem to take in. It has the kind of simple line through it that’s essential if a poem is to communicate when you hear it just once. Its clarity of impact is partly a matter of form. Most lines have three strong stresses. Each line is a complete unit of sense, with a natural small pause at its end, and all but the last two stanzas are complete sentences with a longer pause at their end. The two stanzas that are minor sentences – ie sentences without a main clause – are given a bit of extra emphasis and deliberateness by being more strongly rhymed than most of the others. All these features contribute to breaking the poem down into sections that are easily grasped by a listening audience. Staying focused through the progression from one section to another is further aided by clear conjunctions and an element of repetition or reprise, like the repetition of “until”, or the way “beaten” and “punched” are picked up by “Thrashed and stretched and tanned”.

“Map” isn’t difficult, but it is thought-provoking and ultimately mysterious. The combination of clarity with mystery is what gives it its particular kind of effectiveness.

The sense of mystery comes from a kind of disjunction between the poem’s elements – between the calm clarity of its overall composition and the violence of the ideas it contains, and between the ideas being compared to each other. There’s a further uncertainty about the point of the comparison.

The critical theorist I. A. Richards divided metaphors into two parts, tenor and vehicle. The tenor was the idea being expressed, and the vehicle was the image used to express this idea. That gives us a nice, neat – too neat – way of thinking about the imaginative processes involved. In “The Map” I suppose you could say that the image of the destruction and disposal of a body was being used to express the real nature of cartography (perhaps to make us think about how reductive of the infinite complexity of living place mapmaking is) or you could say say the reverse, that cartography was being used to express the nature of killing. Personally I’d say that the two ideas were being brought together or banged against each other to release a flurry of suggestions that can’t be definitively pinned down, that will be different for every reader, but that are strongly felt.

An obvious effect of yoking such heterogeneous metaphor sets together is that each is strongly defined against the other. The violence done to the body seems even more horrifying, gratuitous and densely physical when set against the abstraction of a map. At the same time, it makes us almost feel the abstractness of the map’s lines. The imagination is bounced between opposite poles, between the sensitive tissue of an eyeball and the brittleness of glass, between the ghastly idea of a nipple being beaten absolutely flat and the contour lines on a map, and also between the different connotations of words as they bind the different metaphor sets together – like “punch” which makes us think both of the blow of a fist and of a piercing tool used on an inanimate surface, or “tanned” which suggests the curing of leather and the administering of a beating. There’s a similar effect in the shifting of tones, from the pitiless elegance of “they’ll slit me along my seams” to the crudity of “flopped innards full of stink”.

It’s a poem, in other words, that works simultaneously by the precision of its images and by the gaps between them. I suppose all poems do, but this one does to a marked extent. The biggest gap is the indeterminacy of who or what you are to imagine as speaking. This is what gives the poem its range of applicability, of suggestiveness. I find myself thinking of some kind of almost human fugitive creature in the first stanza, a creature that knows itself fated to an Aztec flaying ritual or the tortures of Marsyas, and later on of the world in the brilliant poem “Pelt” in Michael Symmons Roberts’ Corpus (you can read “Pelt” at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=3484 ).



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