Kei Miller’s third collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet), recently carried off the Forward Prize for poetry and it struck me that it shares concerns about language, colonialism and map-making with Brian Friel’s play, Translations (1980) which has become something of a staple teaching text in recent years for several exam boards.
Miller’s poems explore knowledge of place. To begin with there are two opposing views. The cartographer of the title is schooled in “Babylon science” and seeks objective, timeless, abstracted knowledge of Jamaica, knowledge of worth (to his mind) because rid of all contingent distraction. The rastaman knows his island more subjectively, historically, full of local detail, more politically. For the rastaman the island is “unsettled . . . unsugared . . . unmapped”. It “fidget[s]” and slips from “your grip”, is full of what the objective gaze can “never see”. The cartographer arrives with the colonial mission to “untangle the tangled, / to unworry the concerned”, to set a nation and its people back on the right path from which they “may have wrongly turned”.
The 27 sections of the title sequence then proceed to track the dialectic between these two viewpoints. But the book itself is less Ordnance Survey, more a full colour, illustrated map stuffed with half-sketched houses, trail signs, characters, places. This wonderful effect is achieved by Miller’s scattering, along the trail of the dialogue, poems that explore the etymology of place names as well as others that praise various aspects of Jamaica (especially its creatures). So the outcome of the dialogue – proceeding as it does as a pretty civilized skirmish – is loaded in the rastaman’s favour. It’s true that he is said to dismiss “too easily the cartographic view”, though even here the particular poem ends with an acknowledgement that the Eurocentric Mercator projections of the world (1569) misrepresent the size of Africa and have long “gripped like girdles / to make his people smaller than they were”. Rather, it is the position of the cartographer that shifts significantly. Though initially he too “dismisses too easily the rastaman’s view”, he soon begins to “lose himself” among the “I-drens & I-formants . . . smoking a chillum”. Eventually a question rises in his mind, “between his learning / and awakening: how does one map a place / that is not quite a place? How does one draw / towards the heart?”
It’s on this basis, in his more illumined state, that the cartographer begins to try to “map a way to Zion”. Of course, he needs the rastaman to point out that Zion is less a “where” than a “what” and that it cannot be plotted towards but rather must be waited for. Nevertheless, the book’s conclusion is comedic; the whole begins and ends with a “heartbless”. The brutal facts and bloody history of colonialism are conveyed more in the place name poems, many of which record displacement, floggings, shootings, “suspicion . . . centuries deep”. The brevity of most of the poems, the switching between standard voice and forms of Jamaican patois, the details of landscape and people, all combine to make a very enjoyable read, rewarded with a convincing up-lift at the end.
Remarkably similar territory is explored in Brian Friel’s modern classic drama Translations, about the re-mapping of Ireland by British colonial forces around 1833. But Friel writes a tragedy, recording (with historical hindsight) the almost complete stamping out of Gaelic culture and language in the 19th century. The British sappers (like Miller’s cartographer) claim they are there to benefit the Irish people, to rationalize and clarify what they perceive/assume is a backward country in need of modernization. But Friel (like Miller) portrays the native culture as sophisticated, if different, so that with the British process of improvement comes inevitable loss. The hedge-school teacher, Hugh, closes the play, failing to recall lines from Virgil and Friel is implying, with dramatic economy, with the stage lights fading, the loss of knowledge, of language, of personal and national identity. In contrast, Miller’s book ends in peaceable benediction:
The rastaman bids you
Mannaz and respeck
Izes and protecshun
He bids you
Guidance and healt
Inity and Strenth
Bids you, Trod Holy
To I-ly I-ly I-ly