Rob Carney’s 88 Maps is a raucous and ruminative, plangent and piquant collection of 32 poems arranged into five sections where the first and last sections are each comprised of a single long poem and where numbers carry persistent real and symbolic weight. There is something Whitmanian about the impulse here—the capaciousness of a project that does indeed “contain multitudes”—but Carney modulates his forays into confession and cultural commentary, epistle and ekphrasis, the satirical and the spiritual, with that most essential tool: structure. The book is skillfully assembled (imbricated might be a better word, evoking shingles on a roof…) into multiple, overlapping topographies. Each section adds another layer to the complex textual edifice Carney has built and is building—surely there are more poems to come!—which hinges on notions of place, progress, and belonging. And the threshold, the doorjamb, the keystone, is value.
The first poem in this collection is about maps, at least initially—“I found them rolled up, dusty, in an old armoire/ too big to get out of the cellar.” The premise is a scavenger hunt in which our speaker was not seeking but found, and as a result, was called to respond. This may be the reader’s experience of Carney’s book, come to think of it, finding herself suddenly caught up in “a set of illustrations and arrows with instructions on how to unfold.” She wants to see the collection through to the end, yet she knows it can’t really end. Everything is too nuanced and recursive for that, which is where Eliot comes in: “the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”
Suppose we presume these poems are treasures. Suppose we presume these poems are maps to their own unfolding. Golden-poems. Meta-poems. Then here, at the end of the first one, the prologue-poem, is Carney’s ars poetica. In a project this many-branched and multi-brambled, there had to be one, didn’t there?
I know about maps, though:
the way they all start somewhere,
how they picture the in-between rises
the roof lines and kindling
and armoires and cats’ bones—
but always arrive at the ocean, stars, or underground
whichever way we go.
Ready for the rises and valleys? They’re next, fleshing out the body of the book. The first section was DEPARTURES. Next comes DIRECTIONS, where we rise, swell, are carried further away.
For instance, think about eagles, how they soar, what it means to be lifted up on eagles’ wings. Then, enter a poem like “Eagle Ridge, Eagle Crest, Eagle View” and look down on the world from such a wide and luminous vantage. Carney’s capaciousness turns aerial, panoramic:
Meanwhile, the wind is busy with its own work,
bending the trees back like dancers,
and nine crows ride on the updraft in a line.
I’m not a pioneer either, but I can read this weather
Perhaps my favorite poem in this section is the one that makes my own heart rise up in my throat and lodge there. It’s a poem, it’s a prompt, it’s a litany: “Every Place I’ve Ever Lived is Gone:” The colon in the title holds the words in place like buttons on a collar. Maybe the reader will fill those bright white margins with her own missing places. She feels the tightening after all, the longing for what is lost gleaming back at her even in Carney’s choice of punctuation. And though I’ve never been to Lafayette, Louisiana, or Spokane, Washington, I’ve been there now. “I can stop on the shoulder and sit there still/ while stars fill every inch of night.”
The valleys come next, as promised.
In the third section, the fulcrum-section titled NO RETURN ADDRESS, we pass through the via negativa of poetry. It’s almost a riddle. What is the poem with no return address? It must be a poem not recognizable as itself, not locatable on a traditional map of poems. A poem in disguise perhaps? Eliot can help us again: “To arrive where you are […]You must go through the way in which you are not.” I had a teacher once who told me I could only understand why I didn’t write fiction by writing fiction. I wonder if Carney had a teacher who told him he could only understand why he wrote poetry by writing prose. If so, he was wise to comply.
The reader comes upon these passages as upon a valley, sprawling before her, full to their margins: four poems without line breaks: prose-poems if we’re so inclined to call them. Carney’s journey to the heart of poetry, its bull’s-eye center, is via the valley of prose.
Juxtapose the breathless humor of “Dinner Date”—an outrageous soliloquy in the voice of a new romantic interest—with the poem that follows, “No Return Address”—an elegy of extraordinary depth to a former spouse, first divorced, then departed. This poem is breathtaking in an entirely different way, yet the impact of both prose-poems is equally visceral. There’s that raucous and ruminative energy I was taking about, that leaping between extremes so that we see, and finally believe, the way each emotion emits, each circumstance contains, its opposite.
Now how do we get home from here? The ars poetica promised “roof lines and kindling/ and armoires and cats’ bones,” which sure sounds like the suburbs to me. And so it is: HOME APPRAISALS.
The natural world and the suburban (qua artificial) world are placed paratactic for inspection: “If there’s added value in a ceiling fan,/ then there must be value in a hawk.” Carney later concedes, “There isn’t any math that factors this,” and yet “there must be value every time they miss/ so plunge becomes pursuit, becomes a game/ played out in fan-tailed figure-eights.” There are those eights again, reminding us of the 88 Maps, the number eight and its shadow, one the real, natural eight, the other its impersonator. Reminding us of the world we lived in: Originals and copies. Reminding us of the world we live in now: Originals and clones. And the eternal opposites: One eight the qualitative (poetry, et al.), the other quantitative (mathematics, et al.). As such, “Not every decimal point is accurate.” As such, “Best one-point-something hours that whole July.” And is it incumbent upon the poet to call attention to such incongruities? “The curtains would never be seagulls./ Her closet would never be the woods.” Not to rank them, to be clear, but a far more delicate and diligent project: to name them—to recognize what each thing is, and what it is not, and how we cannot make anything otherwise, even with our wishing? If we try, we “twist sense like a corkscrew/ and the only wine [we] ever open is the bottle of [our] own desire.”
Sometimes, out of nowhere, and seemingly of their own accord, the cosmic geometries align to form a cogent proof. These are moments I treasure most in Carney’s poems—when the natural world and its shadow converge, even superimpose:
Upstairs follows the roof line—trapezoids,
odd polygons. Three windows look out
at the mountains—more angles balancing the sky….
Once when I was seventeen, the moon
looked close enough to walk to. Right there. Huge….
The archway makes me think of that sometimes.
The fifth section is called ARRIVALS, but we already know how that story goes. The ars poetica foreshadowed as much: but always arrive at the ocean, stars, or underground/whichever way we go. Now Carney’s speaker tells us: “Take your pick.” Now Carney’s speaker warns us: “Hold on to your catharsis, people,/ the zombies are coming to eat you where it hurts.” The command is quickly tempered: “though of course this is metaphor./ It says so on every syllabus.”
Zombies still represent consumerism, don’t they? They consume humans the way humans consume the world. It’s a transitive property, and Carney’s doing poetry math. He wants to know: does our cultural currency actually add up to something? anything? (Bueller? Bueller?) Is YouTube really “our new tribal fire”?
Maps are not doors, and poems are not maps, but these poems come with a skeleton key. It’s called unless. It’s a conjunction, which is another way of saying a hinge or a bridge—a tool of language to bring this and that together. Carney’s speaker contemplates unless, remarks “I’ve always liked that word —like a lighthouse keeping an eye on possibility.”
The book isn’t over unless you want it to be. You can always go back for some “pear amandines in spun/honey, sorbet with a cherry reduction.” You can always remember “Our language is a language not a lug nut,” and thus it’s malleable. It bends with its remover to remove. Surely Shakespeare would agree. You can always contest, “A new Target’s not where people fall in love,” unless it is. Maybe you fell in love there, and you find the red bull’s eye the sexiest sign on the strip-malled horizon. You can always insist, “they’re just maps. They’re not magic,” unless maybe there’s something special about finding 88 of them—“the exact same number as keys on a piano,/and maybe if you laid them out side by side// they’d play a song.”
Susan Sontag wrote, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Fifty years later, Rob Carney wrote, “Imagine books/with missing pages…you know it’s more than words// that disappear.” These two statements have nothing to do with each other, unless they do.