Mortal Geography

Reviewed By

Complex and freshly imagined, Alexandra Teague’s charted worlds range from the exotic to the quotidian, from Tikal to her own San Francisco classroom.

Alexandra Teague does not include Elizabeth Bishop’s work among the many epigraphs in her debut collection though she may as well have. It’s impossible to read the travel notes of Mortal Geography and not see in them a tribute to Bishop’s precise observations. Teague harbors the same reverence for the vastness of elsewhere, the same skepticism about the stability of the familiar. Like Bishop, she favors intimate miniatures even within grand landscapes. “The lakes hold clutches of small islands, / shores inside shores, insects in blue amber,” she writes from the John Muir Trail in California.

And, like Bishop, Teague has mastered the art of subverting poetic forms. This first collection is a catalog of cleverly tweaked structures, including a sestina with a single dropped end-word, a cycle of mismatched sonnets, and a pantoum whose repeated lines are never quite the same. Even more clearly than Bishop, though, Teague alters poetic forms as part of a broader interrogation of structures and their visual representation, maps. Because while Mortal Geography does function as a kind of traveler’s notebook, it is more importantly an exploration of syntax in all its forms—the assumptions of English grammar, the intervals of time, the sequence of the human genome, latitudes and longitudes, and, of course, forms of verse. Her work may be in dialogue with Bishop’s, but it is broadly and unquestionably contemporary.

Complex and freshly imagined, Teague’s charted worlds range from the exotic to the quotidian, from Tikal to her own San Francisco classroom. In the first poem of the collection, Teague describes a Vietnamese student struggling to grasp the standard order of adjectives in English. “He wanted to know if his brothers were lost before / older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern // downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.” Teague provides the conventional answer to this question: “Evaluation before size. Age before color. / Nationality before religion,” but the point is really the way the syntax structures thought, alternately revealing and obscuring what we know to be true about experience. The title of this little grammatical tangle is “Adjectives of Order,” an inversion that points both to Teague’s larger project of mapping our maps, and to her knack for nearly pitch-perfect titles. Even in their brevity they are worthy of close reading.

Take “Dead Reckoning.” The first section title refers to the navigation method of determining current coordinates based on previous location and speed—a process that is itself a mapped overlay of time and geography. The section is a record of cultural coordinates by which one might attempt to triangulate Teague’s location: Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Glenn Gould’s interpretations of Bach. A description of a cave tour echoes with Dante’s Inferno; Jean Genet hovers over a celebration of the Eucharist in the war-torn Philippines. The title poem in the section is a lovely splicing of correspondence from a grandfather shipping across the Pacific in World War II, his death mapped by the reckoning of his letters.

If the first section offers a rough projection of geography over history, the second section, aptly entitled “The Heartland,” superimposes American topography onto the human body. Here we find equally moving tours of the unforgiving terrain of American religion and the comfortable chambers of the human heart. “If I could, I’d spend // this night in my own heart, hear its off-metronome gurgle, / flowing and falling of darkness. I’d string bright lure, open // and fill the locks,” she writes, transplanting iconic American images of fishing and canal traffic into the body’s circulatory rivers. In the book’s title poem, a snowstorm reveals the hidden map of the temperatures at which a city’s residents begin to die of exposure: “In Houston, people start dying / when the temperature drops below thirty, / while in Anchorage, death starts // at minus five. We had become / the midpoint of a mortal geography.”

There is a general arc to the collection—from the references of the past to the “Present Perfect” of the third section—but the book is more exploratory than narrative. What is uniformly evident is that Teague is a master technician. She holds her disparate reference points together by way of carefully measured syllables and a composer’s sense of balance. Disciplined lines anchor sentences stretched to their grammatical limits. The most tightly structured poetic forms check the most chaotic material—sonnets about ad hoc games among strangers on a city bus, for example. In one particularly playful piece, skillfully managed meter and strong internal slant rhyme make a chant of Dungeons & Dragons spells: “We have seen others Pass without a Trace, / Feign Death, Regenerate. We know the words / we would not say in public: the ones we Speak with Plants / or use to Transmute Rock to Mud.” Here, as elsewhere in the collection, tidiness counter-balances a taste for the bizarre.

Teague is similarly deliberate in her treatment of the mapping theme. The guidebook that carries her over the 220-mile John Muir trail is ultimately irrelevant to the journey: “You’ll know you have arrived without a map; / the last junction will be stillness with stillness,” she concludes. She misses the news that the human genome has been unraveled while traveling in the Southwest, and she positions the endless revelations of the desert as far grander than the discoveries of genetic coding: “That night, we swung in the cradle of swings. / We listened to the desert’s near infinity of noises.” And yet the maps that seem at times so inadequate also offer moments of transcendence. Describing a student’s delight in color-coding her sentence diagrams, Teague writes in the language of sacred texts and cathedrals:

I see the colors are tools
of a more ancient reverence. She has handed me

grammar as a stained glass window, each piece cut
and soldered into syntax. Even Solomon (proper
noun, blue as a subject) in all his glory (hot pink
prepositional phrase) was not arrayed like one of these.

And under the lines one can almost hear Elizabeth Bishop whispering, “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.”

Kristin Black is an instructor of developmental reading and writing at Truman College in Chicago and thinks teaching is the greatest profession ever. When she's not grading papers or frantically making copies for class, she spends her time reading and completing the occasional freelance writing project. More from this author →