88 Maps by Rob Carney
(Lost Horse Press, 2015)
reviewed by Lexi Jocelyn
Rob Carney serves as an expert topographer in his most recent collection of poems, aptly titled 88 Maps, guiding readers along various paths in search of a meaningful destination. Carney invites readers to follow as he searches for home within himself, among others, and on the surface of a wild and beautiful earth.
The collection is divided into five sections: “Departures,” “Directions,” “No Return Address,” “Home Appraisals,” and “Arrivals.” The first poem in the book and the only poem under the heading of “Departures” is the one for which the collection is named. “88 Maps” is a series of vignettes detailing the discovery and contents of maps found in the basement of a home. In the opening, Carney establishes his capability for vivid storytelling.
I found them rolled up, dusty, in an old armoire
too big to get out of the cellar—
no way to fit it through the door frame
and angle it up the stairwell—
decades ago he must have hauled down wood
and built it where it stands.
And it’s not just a place to store winter jackets.
He was being deliberately permanent,
sawing, planing, and jointing
more than six feet underground.
The final stanzas of “88 Maps” serve as a transition to the next section of the book as readers embark with Carney as their guide:
I know about maps, though:
the way they all start somewhere,
[…] but always arrive at the ocean, stars, or underground
whichever way we go.
“Directions” contains twelve poems in which Carney observes the relationship between human beings and the natural world that surrounds them. The poems in this section serve to highlight place and the improvement of the conditions in which we live. In “Here, in the Rugged, Noble West,” “Suggestions for Urban Renewal:,” and “Here in What Used to Be Mexico,” Carney uses lists to comment on political issues of wildlife management, the preservation of nature in urban environments, and immigration. Contextualized by the national political climate in which we live, the imagery and directness of these poems point to cutting truths that have become all too difficult to keep in focus. From “Suggestions for Urban Renewal”:
10. A new Target’s not where people fall in love.
From “Here in What Used to Be Mexico”:
2. Our language is not a lug nut,
3. and you’re a thinking human being not a wrench.
“No Return Address” consists of four prose poems detailing the complicated intersections of human relationships with the natural world, with sometimes dangerous results. “Undercurrents” portrays the sublimity and danger of the landscape of the American West:
Seems like every weekend in the summer here, someone wants to
take you down to Moab. You go there and hang out and marvel
at nature and beauty […]
[…] Somebody died that day. Drowned. […]
[…] what I’m saying
is there must be someone who’s still sick about that summer
because this guy they loved went out and ended up dead. No
more telling him it’s time for dinner. No more sex or calling him
on the telephone. Gone. Just memories. And even those getting
less and less every year….
In “Lost and Found,” a man is on a boat with a grizzly. “Dinner Date” illustrates a woman’s aversion to chicken. Despite the complexity of the maps illustrated by Carney, simplicity of language creates a series of honest portrayals, depictions of fragile and fickle human life in the 21st century.
The poems in the “Home Appraisals” section of 88 Maps evaluate the priorities of people searching for a home, both literally and metaphorically. Carney’s emphasis is on wildlife—the plunge and pursuit of hawks; the color, texture, and shapes of plants; the smell of “rain on dust;” the attributes of insects; the “shimmer of fish.” Likewise, Carney accentuates the parallels of home and memory construction, as in “2,140 Square Feet”:
You pass between the two through an open arch
but not the kind of arch you see in church,
the kind you find in women: rounded hips,
the small of her back, her somersaulting laugh,
her slow smooth way of coming ‘round from sleep.
or “January 26, 2009”:
Forty-three thousand job cuts in one day,
in just one morning. Thirty thousand more
by late-afternoon. Mine wasn’t one of them.
We’re not part of the millions since last May
who’ve lost their homes—lost porches and front doors,
the mantel ‘round their fireplace, the trim
they painted ‘round the windows one April:
pale green to go with her flower garden.
Or the place where he first saw her naked.
Or their kids’ favorite hiding closet. All…
As in the opening section, the final section, “Arrivals,” contains only one poem. The final poem of the collection, “In the Only Zombie Flick I’ll Watch,” finds Carney reaching the X on the map he’s been drawing for the past sixty pages:
It’s generic Defense of the Genre 101:
our anxieties projected,
the dead-alive virus of consumerism,
suburban fear of wild animals
whose wildness is safely on TV,
and so on, and so on. Take your pick.
While Carney does not exempt himself from falling victim to the concepts these zombies represent, he does express a desire to choose the more difficult path—rising above petty consumerism and insubstantial activism. Carney’s map culminates by reaching a conclusion that his place is to find home and strike a balance between coexistence with other human beings and with the natural world.
Though Carney tentatively reaches his conclusion, it is important to note the cultivation of uncertainty in these maps—informing readers that it’s okay to not know all the answers before embarking on the search, to not know all the answers on the way, and it’s okay to not know all the answers once home has been found. As he states in some of the book’s closing lines:
Certainty feels like a flag when you fly it. It snaps in the wind
and makes the sound of your own good name,
of your own high opinion. It’s the opposite of birds.
And it was birds that he was growing, after all: […]
[…] One morning he went ‘round his yard on a ladder.
He paid no attention to everyone clapping,
just picked each bird and released it into the sky.