May 18, 2017KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiasmsReadingWriting

“I am a little world made cunningly”: The Poem, the Map, the Self

“I am a little world made cunningly,” begins John Donne’s fifth Holy Sonnet. It becomes clear in the context of the poem that the subject of the sentence and line, its “I,” is referring to the speaker’s physical and spiritual self—his body and soul. Considering the line as its own unit of meaning, however, one might also consider the literary implications therein. Especially in its chronological trajectory at the poem’s very beginning, the line has not yet accrued context, leaving itself open to such speculation and connection: the line itself as a little world, the poem itself as a little world.

While Donne’s poems display an individual virtuosity and penchant both for cunningly crafting his poems as Metaphysical worlds of self-sustaining conceit, and for rendering the body and its parts as entirety or part of a “world,” the figure of poem-as-body-as-world (or the rendering of world—as globe, or map) is alive and well in contemporary poetry. While this nesting doll of affinities—poem, body, world—has a timeless quality to it, it’s also worth considering how the figure itself reflects the particular interests or concerns of its era.

John Donne, who was born in 1573 and died in 1631 in England, was immersed in the “Age of Exploration,” and his conceits of navigation (often applied to the self and its interpersonal relationships) carry that sense of wonder and excitement along with them. His poems aren’t questioning colonial expansion in a political or social sense – they’re reveling in the perception of expanding horizons, both intellectually and geographically, even when these expanding horizons are used in the services of simply convincing a lover to stay in bed in “The Good-Morrow”:

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?

What, then, might Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Map” (written in 1934 and published in 1935) reveal about the moments of its making:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green. 

Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges 

showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges 

where weeds hang to the simple blue from green. 

Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under, 

drawing it unperturbed around itself? 

Along the fine tan sandy shelf 

is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still. 

Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo 

has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays, 

under a glass as if they were expected to blossom, 

or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish. 

The names of seashore towns run out to sea, 

the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains 

– the printer here experiencing the same excitement 

as when emotion too far exceeds its cause. 

These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger 

like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods. 

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is, 

lending the land their waves’ own conformation: 

and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation, 

profiles investigate the sea, where land is. 

Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors? 

– What suits the character or the native waters best. 

Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West. 

More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Or Donald Justice’s short poem “A Map of Love,” (from around 1959, originally titled “Love’s Map,” published in his first collection, The Summer Anniversaries, in 1960):

Your face more than others’ faces
Maps the half-remembered places
I have come to while I slept –
Continents a dream had kept
Secret from all waking folk
Till to your face I awoke,
And remembered then the shore,
And the dark interior.

In our own historical moment, questions of immigration and borders, trade and interconnectedness, shape our senses of selves and senses of our worlds, globes, and maps. Non-fiction books like Parag Khanna’s Connectography explore the inadequacy of maps and borders in illuminating our lived realities, and some of the most moving map-poems and globe-poems and navigation-poems of our time echo that line of questioning.

Consider Safia Elhillo’s recent poem “Self-Portrait as Map,” first published in Calalloo 39.2 in Spring 2016, which begins:

& what is a country but the drawing of a line

today i draw thick black lines around my eyes and they are a country

And Yesenia Montilla’s 2017 Poem-a-Day selection “Maps” (“For Marcelo“), in which the speaker says:

& if I were to see you
tomorrow & everyone you
came from had disappeared
I would weep with you & drown
out any black lines that this
earth allowed us to give it –
because what is a map but
a useless prison?

Montilla’s poem ends:

As if we could
forget that if you spin the globe
& stop it with your finger
you’ll land it on top of someone
living, someone who was not
expecting to be crushed by thirst –

This ending puts me in mind of Warsan Shire’s viral poem “what they did yesterday afternoon,” which ends:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

Like Donne, Bishop, and Justice, these three contemporary poets yoke the external and the internal world through poetic figure, but rather than reaching out for the figure of the map or globe to connect to poem and body, these poets’ global urgencies feel already internalized—figures both made and lived. Montilla’s painful “As if we could forget” speaks volumes here; while there are still plenty of imaginative and emotional discoveries to be made in the mapping poems of our present moment, there is an immediacy to Elhillo, Montilla, and Shire’s poems that asks us, in a quite different sense than Donne’s seduction, to make a connection, asks us if “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears.”