Saturday, May 1, 2010

May 2010 Poetry Challenge

A Map of Texas

Dallas is allotted no more ink
than any other city, but my childhood
was drawn inside that spot, moving
vans drove its thin ink streets, and death
scrawled its signature in narrow alleys
that never made it onto maps. I can
buy a map of only Dallas, all its streets,
and still could not convey how big it is—
how even from a dot across the country,
it’s so much harder to erase than this
small circle. It’s the place I widened,
crawling out of my window—direction,
destination, left in my room
next to schoolbooks. I set out to stretch
that dot to eruption. I never could
reach the edges. But that didn’t keep me
in my room, even when my mother’s
sleeping breath floated down the hall
and up the sidewalk behind me, to whatever
car I thought might drive me to the farthest
corners of that ink spot that I cover, now,
with one fingertip.

Deborah Rossel

Texas Poetry Calendar 2008, edited by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen (Austin, Texas: Dos Gatos Press, 2007). Used by permission of the author and publisher.
You can purchase the 2010 Texas Poetry Calendar through the Dos Gatos Press Website at

What irony that the poet’s little finger can cover a whole city on a map! Symbolically, that finger can cover the narrator’s whole childhood and youth—including moves (within the same city), her home and school. Even the far edges of her youthful existence—driven by car, can be covered.

Part of the mystery of the poem, as I read it, is that we don’t know whether the narrator wants to cover (hide) her childhood and youth and to forget it. Perhaps she is hinting at that is so when she says “I set out to stretch / that dot to eruption.” When the narrator crawled out the window, was she trying to get away from something at home, or just seeking for something? Was she a rebel? An adventurer? Or is crawling out the window, wanting to “reach the edges” primarily a metaphor for the ways in which we “widen” our lives? In what ways did the narrator fail to reach the edges? If I substitute Iowa City for Dallas, I can read aspects of my own story into all the words of this poem as I ponder possible meanings.

Rossel uses a fairly literal description of a map, then moves to the level of metaphor. I suspect that most, if not all, of us, at some time in our childhood or youth tested the limits, moving toward the edges of what was known and what was permitted.

Another approach to maps comes from Brandel France de Bravo. France de Bravo has lived in several countries and is familiar with several languages. Perhaps that is one reason for her keen interest in the origin and history of words. In Provenance, France de Bravo provides the reader with a poem for each letter of the English alphabet and, in the back of the book, an abridged etymology of each of the 26 words chosen as titles for these poems.


Mommy stone, daddy stone, and baby stone.
This is how my daughter ordered the world at two,
the family her unit of measurement.
Even the penny nails procreated, but it was she
who swaddled with maternal care
her plastic porpoise in wet washcloths.
By six she was compiling long lists of possible names
for her possessions or what she someday hoped to have:
play horses, pussy willow buds—each in its own
velvet-lined ring box—and a real dog.
Now that she is nine she makes maps:
her newspaper route, the four miles to school,
a diagram with “treasure buried here.”
In bed, the sheet over her bent knees a topography
of cotton, she sees all the mountains, river beds,
and canyons she could ever need in her own body.
She wipes her mouth and the napkin is a watercolor
of fractured countries and continents adrift in a sea of white.

Her father, on one of his trips, bought her an old Soviet compass
with a wristband but she seems to know where she’s going.
My husband and I are still trying to get our bearings,
figure out which place to call home.
I lived in Egypt once, and for a while it was the right place to be.
In Arabic, Cairo is called “Mother of the World,”
which always makes me think of my nursery school teacher.
In a room with pink-curtained light, she cut apples,
knit, and washed placemats while we played at her feet,
tugged on her apron—cloth of the world.
She was our mother for the morning, or at least a representation.
At noon she would tuck her needles into her apron pocket
and take us by the hand for Ring around the Rosies.
After ashes, ashes we all fell down and went home.

It isn’t long before we realize the world is bigger than a room,
a person, and understand that things will go un-named.
We stop going home at the end of the day and venture
farther and farther from it, carrying a map,
which some of us turn in our hands, and others in our heads.
After years of use, it’s difficult to fold up this spreading
map, blurred at the creases like memories, impossible
to return it to its neat beginnings: when it was obedient,
small enough to fit into a glove compartment.

-- Brandel France de Bravo

Provenance(Washington, D.C.: Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2008), pp. 40-41.
Mexican Poetry Today: 20/20 Voices, edited by Brandel France de Bravo, has just been published by Shearsman Books. France de Bravo, who is a health educator as well as a poet, is also co-author with Jessica Teich of Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World.

France de Bravo begins by giving showing us that a map is just one of many ways of ordering the world, and that one can find figurative maps in many places, even in the stains on a napkin. The sheet over a person’s body can be a topographical map. The narrator’s daughter, the poet tells us, seems to know where she is going, whereas the narrator and her husband still have not gotten their bearings.

The poem takes an interesting turn when the narrator says she lived in Cairo. which in Arabic is called “Mother of the World.” This leap provides the poet an opportunity to skillfully lead us to a section reflecting the etymology of the word “map,” already hinted at in the reference to the stained napkin.
The abbreviated etymology at the end of the book tells us the word map “comes from the Latin word, mappa, meaning cloth, sheet or towel. Apron and napkin are closely related to this word.” The poet moves from the “Mother of the World,” to recollections of a mother stand-in, her nursery school teacher. France de Bravo writes, “we played at her feet, / tugged on her apron—cloth of the world.” Here the apron of the mother/teacher becomes a map which orders the preschooler’s world.

This poem, rich with images, especially of childhood, also holds mysteries. I’m still pondering, for instance, the last line of stanza two: “After ashes, ashes we all fell down and went home. “I know the song and the game, in which children sing, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” But I’m puzzled by the way the line ends with that matter-of-fact way: “we all fell down and went home.” Perhaps it is only a reference to another way of ordering the world, in this case the world of time, or perhaps another meaning will display itself as I continue to live with this poem.

As in Rossel’s poem, the map becomes a metaphor, a complex metaphor for the mapping of our lives. And we all know how difficult it can be to fold up that tattered map and put it back into the glove compartment, “blurred at the creases,” as it is, “like memories.”

Other map poems to inspire you:

Kim-An Lieberman,Breaking the Map. The title poem is an especially powerful expression of what happens when the map changes because a country is split in two.

Shahid Ali Agha, A Nostalgist's Map of America: Poems

Lucille Clifton, “What the Mirror Said” in Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980 (American Poets Continuum)

Elizabeth Bishop, “The Map” in The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 (also available on-line)

Alan Kaplan, “The New York Times Weather Map,” The Nation,(July 3, 1967), p. 22.

May Challenge – A Map Poem

The May, 2010, challenge is to write a poem about or involving a map. It may be a narrative poem in which a map plays an important role, or the map may be used metaphorically. But there should be a literal map clearly behind the metaphor. You may use any form you choose, free verse or formal. If you write a formal poem, include a note designating the form. No poems already published on-line or in books, please.

Send your poem to wildamorris [at] ameritech[dot] net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and . for [dot], and don’t leave any spaces). Be sure to include your e-mail address so I can respond. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog, if it is a winner.

© 2010 Wilda Morris