Ambiguity and precision overlap in these very personal instructions for map-making
I discovered this week's poem – and poet – in issue 76 of Michael Mackmin's influential Norwich-based poetry journal, The Rialto . It was the tone of Emily Hasler's "Cartography for Beginners" that particularly attracted me: colloquial, playful, assured. The playfulness and assurance extend to the way the poem remodels and subverts what a cartographer might call its "ground-truth" – a lesson on how to draw a map.
That the speaker is only pretending to issue a set of useful instructions, meanwhile creating her own myth of map-making, quickly becomes clear in the ordering of priorities, beginning with that emphasis on "the correct blue". When, in lines two and three, the speaker advises that the shade of blue should not be "too watery" because "people do not like wet feet", the map and the place mapped are suddenly fused, and we might even suspect the tutee is in on the joke. A mock-didactic poem needs two people to play the game.
Blue could be associated with feelings too, of course, and perhaps an openness to feeling. Beyond its aesthetic potential, water constantly draws the speaker's attention. It becomes so significant that, even if there's no actual water to be indicated, she insists that the choice of blue still has to be made. Later, she will go farther and say that, if the area has no water, "I have to question why you are bothering". The most powerful image or symbol in the poem, water connects, through baptism, to the church (listed in the places of worship) and, of course, to the pub. Finally, the poem considers the possibility of a completely submerged East Anglia. Its resemblance to "a sodden Constable" suggests that the place is not so much a place as a picture of a place – the converse idea of a map which causes wet feet.
Elements from both art and science, the disciplines the making of maps traditionally employs are allowed to unsettle one another. That unsettling is inherent in many kinds of mapping, of course. Perhaps the key reference is to "the twin and warring gods of Precision/ and Wild Abandon". In mentioning the coastline paradox the poem reveals an awareness of the difficulty of exactly conveying complex spatial information on paper.
Precision, symbolised by Mandelbrot's investigation, is burdensome, but cannot be jettisoned ("get a stepladder"). "Wild Abandon" is hinted in "licence" (line 13) and, more resolutely projected at the end, when the speaker seems to be persuading the addressee towards a real, physical encounter and an implied sexual landscape. Tensions exist in the antipathy of wet and dry, public and private. The map is interpreted as an act of communication with "people", an intimate space between friends or lovers, and a delightful playground for the solitary imagination.
Formally, there's a resistance to end-stopping. The many enjambed lines create their own variable coastline – the line-endings – and flow gracefully over the edge. There is a civility in the poem that recalls Elizabeth Bishop's finely controlled, often ruefully humorous, navigating potentially dangerous emotional waves.
"People do not like/ to be lost", the speaker remarks in lines 10/11, but, of course, some discoveries can be made only when one is lost. This poem disorientates us, but in a gentle and fruitful way. While we're not allowed to find out, metaphorically, exactly where we are, some East Anglian locations towards the end are reassuring. And they allow an affectionate poem of place to emerge from an intimate address to a particular individual.
Originally from Felixstowe in Suffolk, Hasler has published work in various magazines and anthologies, and her first pamphlet natural histories appeared from Salt in their "modern voices" series, and is still available. "Cartography for Beginners" is from an unpublished sequence of four poems, "The Map Lover". I look forward to seeing this, and more of Hasler's work, in a first full-length collection.
Cartography for Beginners
First of all, you will need to choose the correct blue
to indicate water. This should not be too watery.
You must remember: people do not like wet feet.
If there is no water to indicate, no matter,
you must still elect a blue. Let me recommend
eggshell, at a push, azure. Choose a symbol
for church/temple/mosque/synagogue. Choose
a symbol for pub. Dedicate your life
to the twin and warring gods of Precision
and Wild Abandon. People do not like
to be lost. Buy Mandelbrot's 1967 paper
on the coastline paradox, put it on the highest shelf –
but get a stepladder. Take a little licence with rivers,
especially their curves and estuaries. Add
an oxbow lake if at all possible. If the area you
are mapping has no seas/lakes/rivers/streams,
I have to question why you are bothering. You
won't get to use that lovely blue you spent so long
deciding upon. Do the Norfolk fens instead. Better
yet, East Anglia in its future state, quite utterly
submerged like a sodden Constable. Come on,
get your coat, I'll show you. You won't need your shoes.