Online Exhibitions

The act of writing and the act of mapping are not far removed from one another. In fact, many of the words we associate with the science of mapping include writing as a root verb: topography, from the Greek words for “place” and "write"; geography, from the Greek words for “earth” and “write”; cartography, from the Greek words for “papyrus” and “write.” To write is, in a sense, to attempt to chart our understanding of the world. And to look at a map is, in a sense, to create: we pore over unfamiliar names and fill in blank spaces with new people and adventures. The unknown is knowable, the map whispers. It’s hard to overstate—or to resist— the power of that call to the imagination. Here, we examine how poets have attempted these chartings in works that engage with maps as physical objects and as metaphor.

This exhibit, curated by Sarah Kortemeier, was originally presented in the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery of the University of Arizona Poetry Center from February 4, 2013 to April 17, 2013.

The Map as Poetic Subject: A Nostalgist's Map of America
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Agha Shahid Ali. A Nostalgist’s Map of America. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.

The Map as Poetic Subject

There is a stunning breadth of poems on the subject of maps and mapmaking in the contemporary canon. Maps have provided vehicles for poetic meditations on memory, history, geography, travel, and identity (both national and personal), to name a few.

Agha Shahid Ali travels westward in his collection A Nostalgist’s Map of America, charting a vision of America informed by memory and history, loss and politics, identity and otherness.

The Map as Poetic Subject: That the Science of Cartography is Limited
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Eavan Boland. “That the Science of Cartography is Limited.” New Collected Poems. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Eavan Boland uses the science of cartography as a jumping-off point for a heartbreaking and intimate meditation on the history of her native Ireland.

The Map as Poetic Subject: Geography of the Near Past
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Al Young. “Geography of the Near Past.” Berkeley, CA: Poltroon Press, 2006.

Al Young treats memory and history as a kind of geographical trick, imagining a speaker moving “against world current…as if nothing ever happened” in a universe whose spaces and chartings are uncertain.

The Map as Poetic Subject: The Map
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Elizabeth Bishop. “The Map.” North and South. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.

Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “The Map,” published in her first collection, North and South, was an early exploration of themes of travel and geography that would inform her work throughout her life.

The Narrative Atlas: Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will
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Judith Schalansky. Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will. Trans. Christine Lo. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

The Narrative Atlas

A number of contemporary artists, writers, and cartographers have published innovative and critically acclaimed atlases in recent years. These artists interrogate and expand the ways in which the atlas can function as literature—can, in fact, tell the story of a place.

The Narrative Atlas: Infinite City
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Rebecca Solnit. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

With a team of cartographers, artists, and writers, essayist Rebecca Solnit creates a “love letter to San Francisco” in her atlas Infinite City, bringing disparate elements together to form a vivid picture of the city’s past and present.

The Narrative Atlas: Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas
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Denis Wood. Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas. Los Angeles: Siglio Press, 2010.

Everything Sings maps Denis Wood’s own neighborhood, Boylan Heights, charting features (pools of light, Halloween jack-o-lanterns, sidewalk graffiti) that give us subtle clues to its character.

The Map as Metaphor for the Body: Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness
Interior image of Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness
Interior image of Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness

John Donne. “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness.” The Poems of John Donne. Ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson. Oxford University Press, 1912.

The Map as Metaphor for the Body

The idea of the body as a map-able topography has fascinated poets for centuries. These poems are often frank and sensual, reveling in the exploration of the body as a frontier.

The Map as Metaphor for the Body: The Cartographer’s Wedding
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Sam Hamill. “The Cartographer’s Wedding.” Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1982.

The Map as Metaphor for the Body: Topography
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Sharon Olds. “Topography.” The Gold Cell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

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