Kei Miller – The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

Full Disclosure: Miller is a tremendous live performer, and one of the first poets I went to see after moving to Edinburgh, so I do have positive associations with his work. Met him once at StAnza many moons ago.

Review: The Cartographer[…] is, ostensibly, the story of two largely allegorical figures, the eponymous cartographer and his antagonist, the rastaman. Their dialogue provides the book’s title and thematic spine, and could be read as Miller’s quarrel with himself in trying to understand (or perhaps to explain) his home, his origins, the cartographer’s empiricism versus the rastaman’s faith; the book however, quickly complicates this initial binary by highlighting the rastaman’s academic credentials (‘a PhD (from Glasgow / no less)’) and having the cartographer integrate into the local spiritual community, and eventually begin the doomed quest of the book’s title. Their story ties together the book’s sundry anecdotes, histories, folk tales and observations (arguably it is secondary to the book’s broader concerns); its qualified movement from a priori theory to experience mirroring the book’s overarching narrative.

3 KS

Very recently, Miller wrote powerfully and enlighteningly on being a black poet in Britain and on the history of racial and sexual prejudice in Jamaica; besides being brave and heartfelt personal accounts, provide contexts of which I was ignorant when I first read the book, particularly regarding Jamaican social-political history. In light of these pieces, The Cartographer seems an attempt not only for Miller to work out his own attitudes towards a deeply complex society, but also to frame those problems as – historically speaking at the very least – bound together with Britain’s own. If the tone of the unnamed third ‘character’, the non-participating narrator, seems to work double-duty as tour guide (and tour guides do make appearances in the book), it may be that The Cartographer also aims to provide introductions to the uninitiated. That it carries out this goal with humour and patience speaks volumes; reading the linked posts again, I’m struck by how unangry a collection this is, how powerful the calls for ‘heartbless’ that open and close the collection appear in broader context. Jamaica may still be suffering from the social and economic strictures introduced by colonial rule, but it also produced Lorna Goodison, Louise Bennett, Olive Senior and Dennis Scott (just for a kickoff), and the book insists on a complicated perspective on a country that has long suffered from simplistic attitudes at home and abroad.

This drive for context animates a lot of the best pieces in the collection, poems that undermine dominant narratives by highlighting the oddness or humbleness of their origins. In ‘Establishing the Metre’ two French cartographers set out ‘Like tailors who must know their clients’ girths’ and come back with the universal unit of measurement; ‘xi’ relates the story of Lady Musgrave’s Road, which ‘was laid / in its serpentine way / so that Miss Musgrave / on her carriage ride home // would not have to see a nayga man’s property / so much bigger than her husband’s / own’, and remains so; in ‘Place Name: Shotover’, the stately home once known as Chateau Vert is renamed by the descendants of slaves ‘little acquainted with French’, explaining: ‘bucky-master had was to catch back runaway slaves, so him would draw for him long musket and buss gunshot over dere, and gunshot over dere’. Though these poems are grounded in a deeply humane mock-heroism, the pain and violence at their roots is clear. The ‘Place Name’ series emphasises this colonial legacy in ‘Flog Man’ and ‘Edinburgh Castle’, insisting on remembering both their origins and how those origins shape present realities. ‘The Blood Cloths’ and ‘My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls’ depict small, hard-won, but priceless victories, shifting the poems’ focus from the historical to the domestic without conceding their intrinsic value. The personal lives of women are as important to The Cartographer as the maps of powerful men.

3 PF

All of which lends itself well to Miller’s facility with hymn-making, his reverence for the unrevered. Though the book’s postcolonial reclamations animate some of the book’s angriest and most moving pieces, this instinct for reclaiming the poetic foreground also expresses itself in the collection’s creative ecocentrism, as his poems for wildlife (‘A Prayer for the Unflummoxed Beaver’, ‘For the Croaking Lizards’, ‘A Ghazal for the Tethered Goats’) and their habitats (‘Place Name: Half Way Tree’, ‘Place Name: Bloody Bay’) bear witness.  ‘When Considering the Long, Long Journey of 28,000 Rubber Ducks’ is a tiny epic poem, ennobling ‘them who knew to break free from dark hold of ships […] to them / that pass in squeakless silence over the Titanic […] who instruct us yearly on the movement of currents; / those bright yellow dots that crest the waves / like spots of praise: hail.’ The phrase ‘in squeakless silence’ is probably my favourite line of the year. These poems, in insisting on the dignity of old goats and the stoicism of geckos, on focusing on the indefatigability of non-human life, find a way of criticising political hierarchy without bringing it explicitly into focus.

They are also – and this might seem a minor detail after its astute and pointed post-colonial/feminist criticism (caveat: I’ve still a lot to learn about both those things) – a great read. I’d encourage you to seek out Miller’s live performances, or failing that he’s got plenty of material on YouTube. His poems are intended to be spoken, and reading The Cartographer with his voice in mind is a real pleasure. More than any other book on the shortlist, these poems are, primarily, rhetorical performances, and the book reads best taken in one sitting, considered as a unified entity rather than an assembly of individual pieces. The book’s dramatic arcs are well-judged and artfully positioned, and although one could argue that a book that is (easily) readable in an afternoon lacks weight, The Cartographer rewards close engagement and multiple readings.

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Tl;dr: Easily the best book on the Best Collection shortlist. If there’s any justice this will take the big yin, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. Regardless, read it.

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4 responses to “Kei Miller – The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

  1. Reblogged this on Under the Saltire Flag and commented:
    Really humbled by this review, and pleased that there is so much that he ‘gets’.

  2. Excellent review! Can’t wait to read this collection.

  3. My copy has now arrived from Carcanet and I second your opinion, Dave. I heard Kei read from the collection prior to publication in March this year (Shore Poets, Edinburgh) and was entranced by his performance. I really hope this collection garners many prizes.

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