Kei Miller - The Cartographer Tries to...

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

Kei Miller - The Cartographer Tries to...

Miller, Kei (2014): The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Manchester: Carcanet Press)

For the second book in my 26-books-in-52-weeks challenge I chose this slim volume from the Jamaican-born poet Kei Miller. I’ll start off by saying that I really enjoyed reading this, which is a bit unusual as I am not much of a fan of contemporary poetry. For someone raised on Eliot and Yeats a lot of post-war poetry seems to be bland and navel-gazing stuff:

      I went to get my car but the

battery was frozen and cold as a blackjack dealer’ s

smile       so I had to take my wife’s car

which smelled of french fries

One day I turned on the radio and heard Kei Miller reading one of these poems. It really grabbed my attention – the musical cadence and the interplay between English and Jamaican patois were intriguing. I wondered whether just seeing the words on a page would have the same impact,  but taking time to read and think about each section allowed me to appreciate more of the complex imagery. After I finish this post I am going to try reading it out loud and see how that works.

The setting of the collection is Jamaica. The recurring theme is a conversation between the cartographer and the rastaman. The cartographer is intent on mapping the island. His job is “to untangle the tangled, / to unworry the concerned, / to guide you out from cul-de-sacs / into which you have wrongly turned.”

The problem is that:  “On this island things fidget. / Even history. / The landscape does not sit willingly / as if behind an easel / holding pose / waiting on / someone / to pencil / its lines, compose / its best features / or unruly contours.”

The rastaman has “another reasoning”. He counters: “draw me a map of what you see / then I will draw a map of what you never see / and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose”

This conversation is carried out in 27 installments, interspersed with short related poems and notes on place names. Over time the cartographer begins to question his reductive, scientific approach, and wonders whether he should instead be trying to find his way to the rastaman’s Zion.

Along the way Miller raises a lot of meaty issues about colonialism and its aftermath. The act of mapping and codifying the “human terrain” is part of a system of imposing order and control that replaces the local and the unique with the measurable and the efficient, and can itself seem to the inhabitants as a form of violence  – a point explored in detail in James C Scott’s in Seeing Like a State.

As I said earlier I really enjoyed reading and re-reading this volume. I highly recommend it and I think it will stand the test of time.

Kei Miller

Kei Miller was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1978. In 2004 he left to study in England, eventually earning a PhD in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. He has been a visiting writer at York University in Toronto, and currently teaches creative writing at the University of London. (source – Wikipedia)

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