Gilles Deleuze wrote: “Writing has nothing to do with meaning. It has to do with landsurveying and cartography, including the mapping of countries yet to come.” This is the quote that came to me as I read Okla Elliott’s “The Cartographer’s Ink.”
We begin with an invitation to the reader to examine the light that is literal, but also metaphor, an internal light that Elliott uses to examine the world through lenses that include physics, philosophy, folktales, history, war, language, failed relationships, and dying parents. We then meet poems that function in dazzling ways: parables of naming and categorization of the natural world; omens and portents; portals outside the limits of self (even as we strive for connection); explorations of how we learn love; and the difference between what we want and what we assume others want.
Elliott maps the way family can connect us through terror and death, then geography, and how we have to work our way into not longing for another time, but content to be here now. Often this means discarding our father’s traditions, and providing comfort when we are helpless. Heady territory.
There are parables of reckoning, poems of history and science, and glimpses of moments that sustain us in the midst of despair, that magically move from “guilt” to “lightness.” Poems connect via animals, and prayer, and place, and we go in circles in poems that connect through a constant desire for connection. There is a hunger here, a yearning that is exciting.
There is also a formal dance—sonnets and sestinas that remind me of Elizabeth Bachinsky’s work (a Canadian poet that fuses form and modern, gritty content.) For example, “Wolf-Sense Sonnet” which howls through human sex and desire (with great sonic effect); yet in the end the meter falls apart, mirroring our inability to contain “our need.”
Elliott’s formal ability is apparent, but his subtlety and humor intrigue me even more. As in “The Parable Of The Worm In The Apple,” a poem that ends lines with “Kant” and “can’t” with success and a comic effect. Or the poem about Heidegger and hangovers, which as it turns out, is actually a poem about being and Buddhism. Or another sonnet, “The Apocalypso—Or: May I Have The Last Dance?” which is sinister and festive, just as you hoped it would be.
I have to admit, the slower tempo of Section II left me distracted. The section shift is well-executed, but until this point I was riveted, finishing a poem and turning the page, ravenous. This section is slower, with more of an interior gaze, but I did recognize the poet’s voice and skill in this confession, and his use of language and folktales kept this section tethered to the rest of the book. It just wasn’t as surprising to me as the poems in part I. The surprises resurface in part III and IV, and Elliott continues to explore exploration itself—human successes and follies—with great insight and humor.
Some images make me swoon, like in “Nightfishing”—
whizzed a worn tape of The Rolling Stones
made high-pitched and tinny by cheap
speakers. The fish’s shimmery death
and its wet-smacking body seep
in, rise up in watery memory.
And in “Humbaba Clothed In Seven Cloaks”—Gilgamesh calls out to us / warns of the unknowable he now knows/.
There’s also what’s not on the page, as in “Alien War, Human War” where the third stanza is just this:
Death is depleted uranium,
which, in a poem written on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, a poem littered with radiation and “murders we did not commit,” I felt that the poet knew, given the time and space of that fragmented stanza, I would think: half-life. This trust in the reader (of course, alongside a skillful set-up) is for me, exactly how this book works.
Elliott’s map of poems is assembled through a curious mind and a generous heart. Whether we are exploring Montaigne or Tesla, Russian granddmothers or folktales, whether we are in Iraq or Seoul or in “Manheim, Germany, Phone Booth in The Turkish District,” our poet is leading us toward “the power of generosity, one use of our idiot faith in human love.”
Read a poem by Okla Elliott in Contrary: “Alien War, Human War.” Lee Gulyas is a regular reviewer for Contrary.