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Review: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller

This was another random pick up from Wrexham Library (a wonderful place in a town that really needs it – I can’t speak highly enough of this place).  The title struck me first, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, initially we are stuck with this battle between the physical and the mythical and so we go into no mans land to watch each sides interaction. In my work at the moment I’m trying to map both a people and a place that no longer exist in the same forms; whilst tying their Welsh language and it’s clash with the development of the English language around them. So this collection is speaking to me on many levels at the moment. 

       The poems jump of the page with their use of language, the layout of the poems coupled with the rhythm of the language opens the voice within your mind; allowing you to hear the battle between them. Interestingly, Miller has a wealth of experience in Slam Poetry, I wonder if the combat between the two speakers is a natural rhythm for him to write in.

    The blend of language is beautiful. On the one side we have the Cartographer who is trying to anchor himself and his location, pin his own language onto this land,  he says ‘my job / is not to loose myself… My job / is to untangle the tangled’, a wrench apart of physical place. If we think about our own placement in the world and how tangled that is to our emotional response, our memories, this is a very sad image indeed.  This is combated with the rastaman’s mixture of Rastaradianism and patois, drawing the reader into his colloquialisms as he responds ‘draw me a map of what you see / then I will draw…  Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?’. 

    The battle between what is physically there, and what a place actually represents is outlined clearly in the series of poems that begin Place Name. particularly Flog Man where ‘Blood did sprinkle the ground like anointing’ – as a poet I find it difficult to allow myself to admit that there are many things, places, paths even people that can not be described accurately by any use of language, things that ‘are’ cease to be graspable, and that is their beauty. Possibly by describing the world around them we can outline their shadow; but they will never flesh out. This is the debate that the Cartographer and Rastaman find themselves entwined in. 

      Miller’s use of his heritage is captivating. Knowing nothing of Jamaican literature or much of its culture I was hesitant, but Miller guides us through. At the beginning I felt myself clutching to the Cartographers poems, finding within them debates that I contemplate daily. Within the Rastaman’s narrative however, is a lilting acceptance of things that come and go, an acceptance of not knowing and not having to show others evidence of its existence. 

      The rastaman leaves us gently,  he ‘Bids you, Trod Holy / To I-ly I-ly I-ly’

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