Review: The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Millar
Kei Miller’s latest poetry collection depicts Zion as more than a utopian vision for the future, but a “reckoning day” in which the wrongs committed through colonial oppression will be brought to light and justice achieved. The writing is unsettling, challenging, and liberating. Steeped in history, the collection exposes the suffering and resilience of Jamaican people, detailing the atrocities of the past and present.
Combining stand-alone poems with a series of progressive dialogic pieces between a rastaman and a cartographer, Miller’s writing sings with the multi-layered, multi-linguistic voice of the poet. It exposes the folly of map-making as “immapancy” (insufficient geographical knowledge), whilst revealing different ways of mapping and seeing:
“for what to call the haphazard
dance of bees returning
to their hives but maps
that lead to precise
hibiscuses, their soft
storehouses of pollen?”
Standard English segues seamlessly into a mixture of Jamaican and lyric. “Overstanding” suggests a sense of a higher ground being achieved, and “groundation” refers to the 1966 visit of Emperor Haile Selassie to Jamaica. The expression “I&I” denotes the Rastafari belief in the unity of God within the individual, used in place of “we”, to suggest that all are one and the same, as a result of the divine habitation of “Jah”, e.g. God (from the last three letters of “hallelujah”).
The endnotes explain some of the religious and historical context of the poems, including a reference to Mercator’s projection, a map published in 1569 and still popular today, which “distorts the size of the African continent…In fact, Africa is fourteen times larger”. Miller weaves in these factual details with passion and energy: “Map / was just a land-guage written gainst I&I / who never know fi read it”. It is such distortion of truths that attempts “to make his people smaller than they were”.
The heading ‘Place Names’ recurs throughout the collection. In ‘Swamp’, a tour guide speaks:
“Now hacross Martin Boulevard; ladies and
gentleman, below hus in this deep is yards and yards hot grief,
plenty plots of soak-up dreams”
Miller blends myth and folklore with more recent events. In ‘Filip Plays the Role of Papa Ghede (2010)’ the Tivoli incursion sits alongside Papa Ghede, “the god of the crossroads who accompanies the newly dead”. It is thus “the long ago beginning” of slavery and oppression, where “roads constrict like throats” that leads the rastaman to feel:
in the glistening white splendour
of Great Houses; uneasy
with the way others seem easy inside them,
their eyes…smoothly scan the green canefields
as if they’d found
a measure of peace
in the brutal
architecture of history”.
Miller’s own connection to that history is made clear:
“But the cartographer, it is true,
dismisses too easily the rastaman’s view, has never read his provocative dissertation –
“Kepture Land” as Identity Reclamation
in Postcolonial Jamaica. Hell!
the cartographer did not even know
the rastaman had a PhD (from Glasgow
Escaping polarity, Miller’s language shape-shifts and perspectives change:
“The cartographer…says – every language, even yours,
is a partial map of this world…We speak to navigate ourselves
away from dark corners and we become,
Thus the question remains: “how does one map a place / that is not quite a place? How does one draw / towards the heart?” Maps are shown to be places we aspire to or remember, whether real or imagined. They are journeys whose routes are often forced upon a people, but, as Miller’s work so clearly illustrates, they find a way through language.
Carcanet, RRP £9.95, 72pp