Reviewed by Ruth Awad
The Cartographer’s Ink (published by NYQ Books) is Okla Elliott’s first full-length poetry collection – the culmination of years of lived experience, seasoned craft, and reflection. There’s a reason the words “historic,” “philosophical,” and “geography” populate the praises of this book. How else do you describe poems that trace the intersection between what’s animal and human, insignificant and monumental, past and present?
You might expect chaos to come from this kind of ambition, but you’d be wrong. One of the things I admire most about The Cartographer’s Ink is the way Elliott carries and threads his thematic interests throughout his poems. The desire for connection, empathy, and self actualization are never far from the surface of these pages, no matter if he’s writing about the phrase “a hot minute” or Seoul, writing in blank verse about Stalingrad or letting his lyricism reflect on Sir Isaac Newton and “a beacon for other lonely bodies.”
For example, consider the prose poem, “Helpless.” He writes,
There’s nothing to say and I know there’s nothing to say and she knows there’s nothing to say. But I tell her how the Hangul alphabet was invented and that there used to be politicians who wrote poems to teach their people the joys of literature.
It’s not the first time history seeps into Elliott’s verse, but perhaps this is the most vivid example of how he uses collective human history to illuminate the deeply personal histories we carry with us (in this case, a friend’s miscarriage). There are things we understand implicitly about the poem: who hasn’t been a witness to another’s sorrow and felt the inadequacy of words as a vehicle for comfort? At the same time, isn’t language the salve we seek out in times of grief and confusion–isn’t it the way we make sense of the world as it spins on, oblivious to our suffering?
And maybe the most artful achievement of this collection is the argument for empathy, even in moments that threaten our comfort and our imagination. In “Blackened,” for example, Elliott writes about German soldiers marching on Stalingrad and allows the image of “feet froze blackly in our boots” to carry the weight of his philosophical statement: suffering is suffering is suffering. Our best hope of making sure that suffering doesn’t lead to more tragedy is to learn from it.
Those decisions – what we decide to take from our experiences and what we decide to leave behind – haunt the pages of this collection. Sometimes those decisions aren’t so much ours to make as ours to bear. In “Stars of Orion,” Elliott writes,
If we had not seen so many flashes of road
If we had not seen ourselves at night
If we had not seen our parents dying
If we had not loved and not loved
If we had not enjoyed small cruelties
If we had not been born
These hypothetical, trailed-off questions illuminate the heart of this collection: a search for understanding and an invitation to follow Elliott through the woods and across the seas with a map he has so carefully made.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 2.
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