Cartographies of Scale (and Wing) by Anca Vlasopolos
Reviewed by Jahleh Ghanbari
Playing with white space, spanning the page like a bird’s wing, like unfurled maps, each poem contained in Anca Vlasopolos’ sixth book of poetry, Cartographies of Scale (and Wing) demands active participation – the words are scattered about. And that, of course, is the point. Vlasopolos wants us to pore over the pages, tracing a finger over the map of her words, her metaphors, trying to figure our way around.
She prefaces the entire collection with the words of Dava Sobel who says “Maps are guilty of distortion…Maps are only human after all.” And she stays true to the epigraph: she presents us with a distortion, a setup that convinces readers that as long as we follow along on the map metaphor (the dominating image of the first half of the collection), we will safely find our way to the end, all points laid out along the way. Even the first two sections of the book are entitled “MAKING MAPS” and “Visionaries of Maps”, respectively (the second being dedicated to the memory of great cartographers, Gerardus Mercator and Nathaniel Bowditch). But once searching, map in hand, we come to a land of birds instead, and stay there for a good chunk of time, perhaps actually pleased by our misdirection. By “Lost Bearings”, when the narrator says she is “a gulliver among/invisible lilliputians”, we understand we were foolish to assume she knew where she was going, but aren’t upset.
The “bird” poems dominate the book (and one wonders why they wait patiently in the parentheses of the title – perhaps they are just perched?). You get a sense that the narrator is not only invested in these creatures for metaphor, but has a true passion for them in her own life, and her words reflect a deep sincerity and love.
But love isn’t the only motivator in these specific poems. They hold great space in the collection for a reason. Labeled both “Migration without Maps” and “Navigation by Unknown Maps”, the reader realizes that these poems are the kind of guidance we need, for a people who have forgotten, in their obsession with creating borders and simplifying landscapes, that real distances and survey of land are marked by migrations. “Bird Secrets” shows us that we have much to learn from them: [of the chickadees]:
with brains no bigger than their eggs
more wise than you and i
to flee from
The non-capitalized “i” requests that we, as humans, consider breaking down our hierarchies within the animal kingdom.
On top of humility’s lesson is a real sense of urgency as we move toward the end of the collection – a conservationist’s plea. For all the lovely images of the natural world, and obvious devotion to them, we get poems such as “Empty Spoons”, more warning than play in language. In the ending stanza:
so neither birds
three hundred in the world
blindly seething into ten billion teetering toward certain crash
The last section is revealed as “Trying to Stay in Place” and the tone settles down at this point, nesting. At the very end, a poem in the likeness of “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams aptly titled “So Much Depends”. And it’s clear: Anca Vlasopolos does think that so much depends on the natural world and its existence outside of us, outside of the map lines that we draw; and by the end of her collection, you will too.