(NYQ Books, 2014)
reviewed by Justin Hamm
Okla Elliott’s The Cartographer’s Ink begins with an invocation of a certain light. “The Light Here,” we’re told,
[…] is a light that yellows the periphery.
It is not a light that brightens the center.
It is mixed from an overcast morning
and the electric urban dust.
Such light sounds familiar. At first, perhaps, it seems like it could be the light from a Caravaggio painting illuminating the gritty beauty of its subjects. But no, that isn’t quite right.
Read on and it sinks in. Maybe the source is different, but this light is the light of an old Russian novel, of something written by Dostoevsky. It is a light of melancholy and seriousness, and the whole of The Cartographer’s Ink seems bathed in it—from Tesla, who in “In the Days of New Wonder” watches a brown bear through an open window and sees death, to the landmine that lies in wait and “dreams/the echoing boom/and the wet bloom of meat and bone” to the phone booth in Mannheim, with its “Soot—film on the glass,/the pollution so thick in this city.”
Elliott incorporates a world map’s worth of locations and an entire history book of time periods into the collection, but the light remains the same, and ultimately we come to see it as the light under which things appear most as they are. This is just one of the aspects of the book that holds it together and makes it more than simply a gathering of strong poems.
There are others. Also built into its architecture is a recurring exploration of the life of the mind and the difficulty in reaching an ideal that is out of range—from the aforementioned Tesla to “The Man Who Named Bees,” who shows delicate interest in his field of study but “at night, he slept / beside his wife, / whom he wanted to love / more generously,” to the speaker in “I Want to Be a Buddhist—Or Reading Heidegger Midly Hung-over” who tells us, “I want to be a Buddhist but I can’t because I like whiskey / more than enlightenment.”
Elliott is especially exciting at a line level. He manages to surprise with the phrasing of his lines, but they are built of a readable lexicon, too. There is a playfulness, certainly, but no trickery. The images are clear and imaginative and sometimes hilariously bawdy, as in “A Hot Minute,” when the speaker tells us “I’m facedown on your front lawn, / my eyelids flame-red membranes.” Consider, too, this description from “Shibboleth, Beginning and Ending with Lines from Kim Ch un-Su,” which shows Elliott’s mixture of inventiveness and clarity:
Like cracked brick, like pristine anarchy,
we sprawl on this carpet, my rough fingers
in your hair.
At other times Elliott can be gorgeously plainspoken, such as in the opening lines describing the fish in “Nightfishing”:
By the beam of a plastic flashlight,
I saw the torn shadow
of a carp flopping hard against
the boat’s metal bottom […]
Section II of The Cartographer’s Ink is occupied solely by the long narrative poem “Emerging from Clouds.” The strongest and most intimate poem in the collection, it tells the story of the end of an affair through an accumulation of tiny, perfectly-arranged details that grow into scenes and recollections. There is simplicity to the language in the poem that seems meant to evoke the language of fairy tales, which Elliot uses metaphorically to emphasize that, while the relationship described seems like a simple, happy fantasy, betrayal lay beneath:
That wasn’t the only meeting Lela and I had.
During my office hours back in Mannheim
one week when she was able to escape Dr. Kowalski:
another time, after a reading she gave in Heidelberg;
and again in the rank, cramped space
of a train restroom
The reality of the betrayal is a gut-punch to the reader. As the poem closes, it swells with the impending pain this couple will face, and Elliott wisely leaves us there, imagining the terrible confession.
It is one of many wise moves Elliot makes in The Cartographer’s Ink. In all, the collection comes off as skillful, as weighty and moving. It manages to travel across the map and through time without feeling the least bit scattered. Instead, it allows us to see Elliott’s particular light and the truth of whatever that light lands upon.