Geography Poem: Elizabeth Bishop's "The Map"

large_detailed_political_map_of_the_world_in_antique_style_from_the_national_geographicElizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is widely regarded as one of America’s most important and enduring poets. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Nova Scotia, she traveled widely as an adult, spending extended periods in France, Florida, and Brazil before returning to New England in the later part of her life. Geography and locale are common subject matter in her poems, which often arrive at powerful, subjective realizations from a close, detailed look at the objective world.  Perhaps no Bishop poem so explicitly investigates her fondness of geography better than “The Map,” the first poem from her collection North and South, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1956.  In this poem, the reader joins the narrator/poet pouring over a map, delighting in its nuances, and ultimately reveling in its beauty.

The Map

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of the seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
–the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
–What suits the character or the naive waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Geography Poems: Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Micrograms

andrade-colorJorge Carrera Andrade (1902-1978) was an Ecuadorian poet who worked as a journalist and editor before holding diplomatic positions in Peru, France, The Netherlands, Japan, and the United States (among many others).  It’s from this worldly perspective that Carrera Andrade cultivated one of his most enduring contributions to global literature: the microgram.  Loosely defined as a short poem that examines the natural world, the microgram is an amalgamation of such concise predecessors as the epigram, the proverb, the song, the saeta, the riddle, and the haiku.  It was Carrera Andrade’s goal to unite these forms in a boundless and borderless tradition.  In his collection, Micrograms — which is equal parts essay, anthology, and original poetry — he writes:

I try to testify to an ordinary man’s orbit in time.  At first he feels as a stranger in the midst of a changing world but later receives the visit of love and discovers deep within himself a feeling of solidarity with all men of the planet.  In this sense I have traversed new countries in different latitudes and have returned to others already known, in a pilgrimmage as passionate observer rather than as curious traveler.

Published below are five Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade, translated by Joshua Beckman and Alejandro De Acosta.

What The Snail Is

tiny measuring tape
with which God measures the field.

The Earthworm

Constantly tracing in dirt
the long inconclusive stroke
of a mysterious letter.


Living pink tube,
the fish writes glass zeros
in the fishbowl.


silver amulet
or little devil with goiter,
creature of dawn.

Memory of ruins,
fleeting animated mine,
shudder of field,
misanthropic lizard.

Palm Reader

Atop the lines of a leaf
the slow finger of the caterpillar
deciphers good fortune.

Poems from Micrograms by Jorge Carrera Andrade, translated by Alejandro de Acosta and Joshua Beckman. Copyright 2011. Reprinted with permission of Wave Books and the translators.

Geography Poem: A.R. Ammons’s “Cascadilla Falls”

A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) was one of history’s preeminent walking poets.  Like Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and William Wordsworth before him, it was not uncommon for Ammons to compose entire poems in his head during his walks through town and country.  As a result, many of his poems take nature as their subject and concern themselves with modern man’s role in the face of this nature.  Such is the case in “Cascadilla Falls,” the poem below.  It’s a typical Ammons poem of widening scope.  It has a scientist’s mind, an existentialist’s conscious, and a tinge of sophomoric humor.  The poem originally appeared in Ammons’s Selected Poems (1951-1971), which won both the National Book Award and the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry.

Cascadilla Falls

I went down by Cascadilla
Falls this
evening, the
stream below the falls,
and picked up a
handsized stone
kidney-shaped, testicular, and

thought all its motions into it,
the 800 mph earth spin,
the 190-million-mile yearly
displacement around the sun,
the overriding

of the galaxy with the 30,000
mph of where
the sun’s going:
thought all the interweaving
into myself: dropped

the stone to dead rest:
the stream from other motions
rushing over it:
I turned

to the sky and stood still:
I do
not know where I am going
that I can live my life
by this single creek.

Geography Poem: John Ashbery’s “Into the Dusk-Charged Air”

Windy Amazon River

John Ashbery is one of America’s most important living poets.  To many, his work is as canonical and radically inventive as that of other English-language forebearers such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein.  He’s won nearly every major American award for poetry — in 1975, his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was awarded the so-called “triple crown of poetry,” winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  However, despite the massive critical recognition, his work is often met with opposition and skepticism as he consistently resists convention, classification, and interpretation.

His poems are best considered as experiences in language in and of themselves, to ask what an Ashbery poem “means” is as fruitless as asking what a cup of coffee “means.”  In this way, John Ashbery frequently subverts the reader’s expectation of what a poem should look and feel like.  In this poem, he takes on “the river,” a perhaps trite and cliche’d symbol in the world of poetry.  By using a different proper noun river name in all but 1 of the 151 lines of this poem, one wonders if Ashbery isn’t “pulling a fast one” on the reader by simply trying to list as many rivers as he can think of.  However, the accumulation of so many proper nouns devalues their status as rivers and a strange allegorical truth begins to pervade the poem, as in “A particle of mud in the Neckar / Does not turn it black.” or “The Inn / Does not remember better times, and the Merrimack’s / Galvanized.”  Notice also how the two most repeated actions — flowing and freezing — can be interpreted in any number of metaphorical ways.

Due to its length, I’ve embedded the poem after the break.

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