Knotting-Off the Aughts #5: Adam Dickinson’s Cartography and Walking

Year of Release: 2002
Place of Creation: Alberta, New Brunswick, and beyond
Press: Brick (London)

Mode of Acquisition: I stole it. Yeah, that’s right. And not even from a faceless multinational corporation, but from an academic library (specifically, the Queen Elizabeth II Library on the St. John’s campus of Memorial University). Well, officially I didn’t steal it so much as I borrowed it, and then moved across the country. I discovered the book’s official library sticker and book-detecting chip once I unpacked in Toronto. Now, normally, I don’t steal. And if I did, it wouldn’t be from the QEII, which is a wonderful library that does wonderful things such as maintaining one of the country’s highest per-student collections and employing Patrick Warner. However, a year or so earlier, I got docked the fine for a book I never even heard of, so I felt that, karma-wise, I’d be forgiven for just hanging onto the Dickinson.

Status of Personal Copy: Why, it’s right here, beside me. Stripped of its markings, it looks like any old book legitimately purchased from any old bookstore. If the good people at Memorial would like their book back, I’m more than willing to oblige. All I need would be the following: a handwritten letter from the Dean stating that I’ve never borrowed or even looked at something called “Emerging Practices in Nursing Homes”, a refund of that books replacement cost ($60.00), a postage-paid returned envelope, and full amnesty for any marginal notations I may have made in the book being returned.

“In the living room, the bright skull of Africa
Is pinned to the carpet with a piano stool.”
-from “How We Look At Maps”

Note: I’m skipping over #6 for now. I have a copy coming to me from the publisher—it’s been too long since I last read it that, unlike certain other books in this series, I’m not confident writing from memory alone. So, not wanting to put this thing on hiatus, I’m moving forward to number five, and will get back to six when the replacement copy arrives.

My experience with Adam Dickinson’s Cartography and Walking is steeped in an ascending series of readerly missteps. The book is one of only two debut collections on my list of ten favourites (how’s THAT for foreshadowing?) and, as is the way with new voices, one spends a certain number of poems trying to deduce the ideal approach to the work. If you get it right, you soon achieve the minimum energy needed for take-off, and you and the author become partners. If you don’t, you have what’s come to be known as a mismatch between presumed and actual intent.

Suffice it to say, I experienced this mismatch early and often with Cartography and Walking, the work wanted to be read slower than I was willing to allow, and this resulted in numerous half-reads, botched attempts, and long hard months riding the bench on the bookshelf. While I see the relationship between author and reader as essentially a trumped-up version of the “communication circle” enjoyed by so many mid-century positive psychologists, I understand now that this breakdown in said circle had much more to do with my failures of readership than the inability of the poet to express their intent in workable, outward-facing, poetry.

Much like Knotting-Off #9, Sue Goyette’s Undone, Cartography and Walking is a difficult book, disguised as an easy one. It carries the simplicity of form, the bucolic subjects, and the general Canadian-ness of so many other more unmemorable books. As such, I jumped right in and assumed I’d be fine, like a novice musician playing Brahms in triple-time. I missed the circularity of his images, the breathe-at-the-wrong-time-and-you’ll-miss-it specificity of his music, and the breadth of subject matter that gets lost when you start seeing poems about portraiture and dictators as just occasional variations on the eco-poetry you quickly and incorrectly assumed the book would make its only interest.

Dickinson (at least here, if not as much in his follow-up, Kingdom, Phylum) belongs to a tradition in nature poetry that has come under fire in recent years. His is the appeal of a Don McKay, where there is no harm or fear contained in a metaphor that reframes the wild as something utilitarian or even human (I understand that’s reductive, but give me a break, What Nature Means to Don McKay is a whole other blog post, or twelve). When Dickinson says of bats, “Their modesty confounds us./ They dart in the cover of tree tops/ as though rushing from bathroom to dress” he risks the ire of the new eco-poets who cringe audibly at any anthropomorphic reinterpretation of the animal world. Why I prefer about Dickinson and his compatriots is how their practice allows for the idea of an un-human ideal (call it “the wild”) as well as a borderline between that world and the human one (call it “the animal”), but they seem to understand, as well, that both of these nations are expressed through a tool that is purely human (call it “language” if you will, but understand that the word holds many others as well: rhythm, music, irony, misdirection, etc).

There’s even a domesticity to the title of the collection. Dickinson shares my personal obsession with maps, and the second half of the title nods back to Thoreau or even Kipling, that most-maligned figure in the new enlightenment, with its image of the poet at play in his amateur observations, happily distant from the specifics of the natural word. I know this is something of an ad-hominem, but is it strange to anyone else that this movement towards the un-human in the poetic approach to nature has its Canadian roots in places where the human is most unavoidable (Toronto, Vancouver)? And meanwhile, the newest practitioners in this older school of thought can often see the actual wild from their porches, and live in places like New Brunswick, Northern Alberta, the Arctic, Newfoundland, or Vancouver Island?

Anyway, that’s both a rhetorical question and a generalization, and what I really want to close on is this idea of misreading. It’s here that the challenge of poetry really becomes apparent. When we try and convince a friend that reading poetry isn’t all that bad, we say things like “just give it a try”. With the idea that attention, any attention, is enough to get them hooked for life. Books like Cartography and Walking show us how optimistic that assertion can be. Because with Dickinson’s first collection, you can attend to it, honestly and fully, for as long as you want, but it’s a deceptively tough song to play along with, and if you don’t happen to fall on that pitch-perfect first note, your whole accompaniment will be off key.

I know of some prose authors that make similar demands. My first experiences with both Gogol and Vonnegut earned the same frustration, and in both cases pace was the root of the problem. In the first, I jumped in with too much energy, and in the second, I didn’t let the narrative grab me and force me to keep up. And this is only one dimension. When approaching a new poet, there is a whole minefield of possible misreadings: you could miss the tone (satire v. straightness, elegiac v. bored…), the rhythm (syncopated v. arrhythmic…), and the subject matter (to what degree can the subject of the first few poems predict where the rest is going). There are others, too, of course. I imagine there’s a full Fight Card’s worth of possible “___ v. ___”s for every chapter in any introductory book on the poetic craft. And if we’re going to get it right the first time, we need to guess correctly on all of them. This is why the simple mantra of “give it a try”, while as useful as starting-point as any, only succeeds when we can match a new reader with their perfect poet, the one who requires no adaptation from the novice reader’s usual approach to new entertainments, but who fits perfectly beside their assumptions, like a puzzle piece.

Of course, those of us who read a lot of poetry know that there are precious few, if any, perfect poets for each reader. I haven’t found mine yet, and don’t know if I would even like their work, because I’ve become so thoroughly hooked on the challenge of finding the voice, adapting my own style as a reader to the style presented by the poems. Adam Dickinson’s Cartography and Walking was a major object-lesson in the value of becoming a flexible reader. When it comes to the discovery of surprising new voices, the rewards far outweigh those found in works closer to your personal aesthetic.

Maybe this is why so many poetry reviewers mellow with age, why their tastes become progressively more catholic and broad. After all that stretching to meet book after book half-way in the interest of fairness, one becomes immune to displeasure. The pen begins to fill with AB blood (the Universal Receiver) and everything new is comfortably assimilated. Maybe the challenge of reading poetry isn’t the practice and confidence it takes to dislike something with authority and wit, but to like the widest range of poets, and for the widest variety of reasons.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Poems in the Wider World, Top Ten of the 2000s

4 Comments on “Knotting-Off the Aughts #5: Adam Dickinson’s Cartography and Walking”

  1. Stephen Rowe Says:

    Haven’t read this yet, but where is #6? Maybe I’m missing something?

  2. voxpopulism Says:

    I was worried people wouldn’t see this in the text. My worries appear well-founded…

    Note: I’m skipping over #6 for now. I have a copy coming to me from the publisher—it’s been too long since I last read it that, unlike certain other books in this series, I’m not confident writing from memory alone. So, not wanting to put this thing on hiatus, I’m moving forward to number five, and will get back to six when the replacement copy arrives.

  3. Stephen Rowe Says:

    It’s true that when you read a book of poems the experience can really go a couple different ways. Some books I’ve read immediately engage me and for whatever reason I was “tuned in” enough to “get it” for the most part. I truly enjoy these. There are books I’ve read that, no matter what I do with them, I don’t feel I’m competent enough a reader to completely grasp the work. I can obviously work out the overall impression however. When I come back to the book a year latter I find I’m much more suited to take it on. This happens from time to time with works that force me outside my comfort zone of reading. These are great challenges however.

  4. Brian Bartlett Says:

    Good to see this considered appreciation of Adam Dickinson’s first book. Unfortunately when the book was first published it got some blinkered views that didn’t see it for what it is.


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