Tuesday, May 10, 2011

According to a Convert

At the beginning of the semester, I was very angry. I felt there had been a bait and switch—I had thought this craft course would be a deep study on braided essays, personal essays, switching essays, literary journalism essays. Already struggling with these forms, imagine my self-righteous frustration when our lists of essays featured autotuned music videos, documentaries, atlases, a film about a plastic bag…. The Essay and Its Forms. If that didn’t mean words on a page arranged in assorted varieties, what did the word “essay” mean? It seemed to me an empty term, a phrase for anything we’d care to apply it to. And if language were so empty, why be a writer?

Ander asked me at the beginning of the class why I was so raucously against some of the forms. He asked if it was because I felt threatened. I acknowledge that it probably was. How could the dweeby words-on-page essays I created compete with an entertaining autotuned selection or a visually stimulating atlas? I was angry at the authors of these works, indignant that they could wedge in on a genre I had such strong preconceived notions.

But then, I read. I watched. I viewed. And I learned.

The Best Essay of the Year, according to a convert.

On Form:

“The two-dimensional world map strikes a compromise somewhere between impertinently simplifying abstraction and aesthetic appropriation of the world. In the end, it is simply about grasping the extent of the earth, orienting it towards the north and being able to gaze down at it like a god.” Judith Schalansky. Atlas of Remote Islands. Page 11.

“Whether an island such as --> Easter Island (100) can be considered remote is simply a matter of perspective. Those who live there, The Rapa Nui, call their homeland Te Pito Te Henua, ‘The navel of the world.’ Any point on the infinite globe of the Earth can become a centre.” Judith Schalansky. Atlas of Remote Islands. Page 14.

What’s fascinating about how Judith Schalansky puts these quotes from her introduction into conversation is that her form allows her to maintain the tension of conquested control from the outsider and subjectedness of the viewer to the land’s will throughout the remainder of her essay. A great cartographer is meant to know the land in an authoritative sense, to represent exactly what’s there while also adapting the representation to communicate to the outside reader consulting the maps. Authority and possession drips from a map (case in point: you can hold and amend a map). Every map is a repackaging of reality. Yet every map is secondary to the reality. The map may lie, but even its lies cannot change the reality of the landscape—rather, the lies can change our understanding of the landscape, leaving us in even deeper ignorance and out of a sense of control. The mapmaker seeks to dictate to the land while always being dictated to by the land.

Schanlansky holds these two characteristics of the cartographer—governor vs. subject—in hand and proves that they apply equally well to the essayist. With each island we are given two maps: one, on the recto page, to look down upon like gods. The other, on the verso page, a globe that rolls to showcase the remote island as the navel of the world. One seeks control—a top down, scaled drawing of the features of the island, named and categorized by its human conquerors. The other robs us not only of our control, but also of our perspective, showing us views of this nearly-spherical Earth that we have likely not been introduced to before. (Two-dimensional depictions of a globe rarely move away from the North-South alignment, let alone the four perpendicular compass points.) These maps dialogue with one another, allowing the reader to interrogate and reevaluate—to essay—his or her understanding of place—of any place.

The form places the material in relationship with itself—two divergent expectations of the islands upheave the perspective of the reader. The mind at work with these two perspectives must attempt and reattempt to comprehend these islands. Likewise, the mind at work with this book must attempt and reattempt to comprehend our relationship with place. If Schalansky posits anything, it is that we cannot ever be 100% governor nor 100% subject. We can never 100% know nor 100% define a place. Contradiction is inherent in the attempt. Her title for the intro is a perfect example: “Paradise is an island. So is hell.” An atlas, with its perpetual pursuit of control and its perpetual insufficiency mirrors this theme. The form depicts the material in a beautiful, understated, and ever-deepening way.

On Scale:

One of the pleasing components of this book is how measured the material is treated. Each island receives the same amount of representation—every island is put into relationship with another island, every island has two individualized maps, and every island has up to one page of narrative. The consistency of this scale is satisfying as it allows us to be able to experience each island both uniquely and in relationship with the others (just as every feature of a map is both unique and in relationship with the others). Further, the god’s-view maps on the recto side of the book feature a tiny scale of 5 kilometers. Every single top-down map uses this same scale, allowing for each map to be compared to another. In this way, the consistent scale of the maps allow for all of the maps to ever be in dialogue, deepening their relationship to one another.

Yet there’s much more than visual scale in this book. The project itself is one of nuanced and balanced scale—to read any one page is to encounter the entire piece’s scale, that of a whetted appetite and satiated hunger. In these maps we find intriguing stories as well as descriptive scenes. We find gaps in our knowledge as well as facts to fill in our experience of the places.
Everything is methodical, but everything leaves us wanting more. We are subjected to the limited information provided while also given so many authoritative facts (latitude and longitude, square kilometers, historic timeline, location in relationship with other islands/places) so as to feel in command of the material. The result: the scale of this project is both minute and vast.

We meet places but we meet our imaginations here too, bridging gaps in the narratives and expanding beyond the book. Schalansky says it so well: “Anyone who opens an atlas wants everything at once, without limits—the whole world. This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired.” I believe that we can say the same for this essay—Schalansky’s wandering mind (and our own) comes to this book with a longing that will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining. Yet Atlas of Remote Islands, with its stories and balanced scale, ever welcomes us in for more. We close the book and turn back to the opening page. There’s always something new to be discovered.

There’s much more to be said about Schalansky, but her essay is so deep, uses its form so much better than this blog post uses its own, that I’d rather just recommend going out and buying your own copy. Whether you read it for the language, form, facts, or beauty, you’ll enjoy the wandering mind ever present on the page.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Case for Wood

I must admit, from the very beginning of this class, I thought Everything Sings was the clear winner. Although I have admittedly wavered in my beliefs throughout the semester, as I have  re-considered the book in tandem with the other two nominees, I realize that, among the three, Wood is still the best essayist.

I think perhaps one of the most useful ways to compare the three might be to think about the project, and the execution of that project through the chosen form. As Wood creates unconventional map after unconventional map of Boylan Heights, his books is, in fact, enacting its project on its own terms. Each map may be thought of as an "attempt" to create a visual or pictorial representation of the neighborhood. Thus, not only does the introduction "essay" in that it introduces the project - it continues, on each page, to "essay" with each map being an exploration of a different (and unusual) aspect of place. As one blogger posted, this book is not about Boylan Heights, it is about expanding our sense of place as we understand it through our representation of it. Here, what another blogger posted becomes relevant: the use of the second person. Far from being annoyed or "pushed in," I felt the second person to be inclusive where Schalansky and Shields were exclusive, or in the latter case, particularly alienating. The stances of each author are obvious from the way he or she posits him or herself in the titles. Re  Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (rhetorical), Atlas of Remote Islands: 50 Island I've Never Set Foot on and Never Will (semi-rhetorical - these places only exist in the author's imagination, a warning label that serves as a disclaimer for the blending of fiction and non-fiction), and Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas (title: rhetorical in an abstract way - re the blogger's question "What do we mean by 'Everything'?" subtitle: relatively neutral, although still abstract - it introduces us to the concept of a "narrative atlas," which is an idea we wrangle with alongside Wood and his students throughout the book). For me, and I think I can speak for my group, the author's positing of the reader in an inclusive mode allowed the book to be about presence rather than absence (Schalansky's "Remoteness", Shields' "Hunger for Reality").

While Schalansky's form self-consciously engages in the very concept she calls "colonizing" by re-creating the maps of her 50 islands in a traditional manner, Wood's approach opens up an entirely original method for making and reading maps. Wood is self-conscious in a different manner: he realizes that the places/things he maps are ephemeral, "useless," and incapable of becoming "commodities". However, his introduction is in praise of the beauty of mapping/preserving a moment that will inevitably be subject to change. Whereas we typically understand maps/the landscape itself to be static, especially in an age of Google Earth, satellites, etc. In fact, as we know, the earth and the global tectonic regime is constantly changing, eroding, erupting, etc. Wood calls attention to this logical fallacy, and points earnestly toward the importance of mapping human decision-making, and understanding how our presence is constantly shifting the places we inhabit.

In response to Shields, all I have to says is: it's been done before, and Benjamin's The Arcades Project is much more interesting to me.

In conclusion, I think it is rather obvious that Wood is still the obvious choice. His form succeeds above and beyond Schalansky and Shields, in that each page of the book marks another "attempt," or "essay" that can be read collectively. Although the same argument could be made for both Schalansky and Shields, I believe that upon close examination and scrutiny that you, dear reader, will feel compelled to agree with me when I say their "attempts" fail. Schalansky's book seeks to understand remote places, and does so with a breadth that each "attempt" is relatively the same as the previous. The same goes for Shields. After a while, it is inevitable, dear reader, that you put those two books down, and take a break from listening to the same thing over and over.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Wood's book is the only one of the three finalists that can be and wants to be read in one sitting. Not that this should determine the prize, but I think it's worth noting. While the reader is compelled to pick up and put down both Schalansky and Shields, sometimes due to sheer exhaustion, Wood's project is accessible and interesting enough to compel the reader throughout the book, to continue flipping the page until they sadly reach the back cover. Don't get me wrong, dear reader, all three books are worth returning to. But Woods' is open enough to let you into his world, into a consideration of place, time and time again, without pressing judgment, without telling you what to think, and by letting the visuals speak for themselves.

I think it is obvious that Denis Wood's is the most idiosyncratic and creative mind at work here, and raises the most interesting questions with respect to our daily lives. His book takes the most (interesting) risks, and has the most at stake. He asks us to pay attention to the world around us, to (try to) listen to everything that sings in a world in which we must often struggle to find beauty among a damaged and urbanized landscape. He completely inverses the use-value of the map, and challenges his readers to do the same. Mapping becomes not about hegemony of place, but preservation or a moment in time, and understanding how such moments speak to how we, as humans affect our planet, our landscape, our city, our neighborhood, our own home. And what important things for us to consider deeply and abstractly as we find ourselves on the brink of ecological disaster, overpopulation, etc. the dawn of the 21st century.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

My Reasoning

If essaying is about thinking, or thinking about feeling, in order to judge which essay resonated with me most, I’ve been thinking about how each one made me feel. Judging, finally, for me, is entirely subjective. “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you,” George Bernard Shaw wrote, reversing the logic of the Golden Rule, “Their tastes may not be the same.” I may have gauged a work and assigned it weight in my psyche upon first encountering it, alone, only to be changed after a discussion in which I discovered how the work had affected my colleagues, and, via peer pressure or sympathy, felt compelled to reassess the value of it.

However, in the end, perhaps because I failed to learn anything or because I’m incorrigible when it comes to my aesthetic conviction, I returned to my initial impressions of each work and made the decision of which ones were best based on my instinctive appraisal. Although I was moved by the visual beauty of Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag” and Herzog’s accented voice-over, once I became aware of its propaganda (and the fact that I wasn’t going to stop using plastic bags in a sometimes careless fashion) I lost interest. Boully’s tone made me suspicious that she was setting me up to look like the fool, like the boy with blue balls at the end. After much discussion I was able, I think, to see the layering and the intelligence in choosing such a controlled tone, but ultimately I didn’t want to go back, perhaps because of my unsavory first date with it. With Bucat, I remembered having my last name, Diamente, butchered, mispronounced, and made fun-of (my first name is Neil, and my father, an Italian immigrant, named me after his favorite American singer), so I was not moved by her dramatization nor did I consider it as important as Finnegan’s subject of the drug war in North America. However, with his New Yorker article, I felt I was being informed of a highly complex social problem that probably would never be solved and so I felt helpless—not a good feeling. Not his fault, but it’s exactly why I read and write poetry and not the news in which men die miserably every day. I laughed hysterically at the “Bed Intruder” song but realized, however clever and savvy it was (and how much I came to admire the Gregory Brother’s talents to Auto-Tune the news), hysteria is a naturally temporary state; I haven’t laughed since, thinking of the Bed Intruder song. Conversely, wonder is a perpetual state and Schalansky’s “Atlas of Remote Islands” put me there. I picked her atlas because it mirrored my love of simplicity, remoteness, solitude, and adventure, despite the subsequent talk about the implicit colonialism in mapmaking and writing. I also love quotations (“One thought fills immensity” –Blake) so “Reality Hunger” fed that love and fostered a desire to make a manifesto of my own regarding what it means to be a poet in the world. Shields’ personality didn’t appeal to me (he seemed like a whiner, not a winner), but his project did. Watching Soll’s “Puppet,” I was reminded of why making an inanimate object come to life is such a primeval urge in the world, why children instinctively make puppets out of anything, which is precisely my favorite activity with my own two children who can’t get enough of seeing their hands’ shadows turn into birds, alligators, dogs, and spiders. I like puppetry, period, and his documentary helped me explain why I do. I lived in San Francisco for a year, but Solnit’s “Infinite City” didn’t trigger nostalgia or curiosity as perhaps it did for others; I simply felt overwhelmed by it. And finally, Wood’s conceit, to make “useless” maps that “prove” everything sings seemed to me such a futile, beautiful gesture that only a poet would attempt, but I did not vote for it. In the end, I could only choose my top three favorites and I settled, for better or worse, on awarding those favorites in each category, or form: atlas (Schalansky), text (Shields), and film (Soll).

After all of Ander’s talk of the idiosyncratic “brain” behind each essay, how to measure it against or within its genre/constraints, how valuable it is to contemporary society, how much of the essay is conducted in the spirit of inquiry, the only question I asked myself, which was usually answered at first blush, was how did it make me feel. I feel compelled to blog, to write this post so I’ll pass this class and graduate, but I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it. Each post gets gobbled up by the next like highway mile signposts, but I’m not sure where I’m going. “What are you doing after you get your MFA,” everyone asks, with the assumption, perhaps, that I can teach now or continue on in a PhD program somewhere like many writers do today. When I was sleeping in the university library two years ago while going through a divorce and had moved out of my house and into a study carrel, I couldn’t imagine spending any more time there. Academia will always remind me of the dust on those books in the stacks. And although I would stop and stare at the titles of books I would probably never read on my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth, when I lay down in my sleeping bag at night and listened to the hum of air-conditioners preserving the knowledge within its walls, I felt trapped, like a pigeon lodged in the building’s air vents. Some part of me resists the privileged life of academia even as I am drawn to it. And so I don’t know what I’m going to do with my MFA in regard to getting a job that it can help me to procure. All I know is I’m going to continue, undaunted, perhaps unemployed, as I have been more or less since starting graduate school. Like Shields who quoted Graham Greene—“When we are not sure, we are alive”—I’ll leave the blogosphere where I began by quoting Shaw again: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Thursday, May 5, 2011


, for those who are paying attention, have been determined:

Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands
David Shields, Reality Hunger
Denis Wood, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas

Let the final battle beginnnnnnnnnnnn.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Denis Wood's Everything Sings

I had plans. They involved my reading glasses, a series of Diet Cokes, twenty-eight pages of spiral bound notes on Denis Wood’s Everything Sings, and indignation. I could show you these notes. They sport letters that spike and twist over college rule lines. They are an emotional mess of acute angles. (If you have re­­ad Wood’s text, think of the map image that accompanies “Radio Waves,” but rendered verbal and infused with opinion.) And all of this because I struggled with much of what I encountered in the early parts of the book’s second (Wood’s own) introduction, with small claims, contradictions, and assumptions that both implicitly and explicitly weave through pages 8-25.

I wanted to understand Denis Wood’s motivations in undertaking a project in which he and his students, over a series of years, sought to map aural and subterranean activity, electrical waves and wires, and lived experience in Boylan Heights, North Carolina. I, like Wood, believe that images are legible, whether found in combination with lettered or wholly pictorial texts. And I believe that verbal texts, imagistic texts, and the many and various hybrid blends of the two are, at least in part, both personally and politically charged. So I was glad when Wood argued that the arrangement of maps within an atlas – “political, physical, climate, natural vegetation, soils, agriculture, population density, gross national product, literacy, protein consumption, and life expectancy” – could be read as an unsettling argument that a people or place’s poverty had been induced by natural forces, even insisting that the argument was there (10). And then I was confused when, on the very next page, he wrote that “nothing obligates a reader to start at the beginning [of a series of maps] and plow through the complicating actions to the resolution” (11). I did not know what to think: Did Wood feel that the order of a series of maps within an atlas mattered or not? Was I in the midst of rooting for Wood & Co as subversive organizers of cartographic materials, scrappily armed with new approaches to human geography? Was Wood, with this allusion to Freytag’s pyramid (“complicating actions,” “resolution”), asking that we as readers be the ones to fight back, reading in whatever way our little hearts desired? Or something else?

Because I approached Everything Sings thinking (and still think) that what Denis Wood and his students have done not only matters in a socio-political sense, but as something compellingly beautiful, I also wanted to understand Wood’s creative and formal objectives. But when one section of his introduction bore the heading “The Map and the Poem” and was closely followed by a call to the reader to imagine the atlas-as-story and then a discussion of the atlas-as-essay, exactly what Wood was proposing that he was after or had accomplished in Everything Sings felt unclear (10-11). I began to suspect that these comparisons of the contents of an atlas (to a poem, to an epic poem, to a story, to a novel, to an essay and, by means of the book’s title and elsewhere, to a song) were just a rather messy way of repeatedly emphasizing one of Wood’s larger (and good) points: that maps can be read, even when unaccompanied by text, that they are even inherently narrative pieces and are more capable of conveying emotional and sensorial experience than we have yet asked them to be. But I had to come to such conclusions after having read much further in the book, because precision remains an issue in the book’s earliest pages and Wood struggles a little – through exclamatory asides, between cross-hatchings of celebrated names and movements – in articulating just what he and his students have done.

With underlines, check marks, and bullet points, with snaking and inky scrawls, I tried to resist this book. I felt cantankerous and unbearable, but I just kept scribbling away. How, I wondered, could Wood ponder a troubling staticity among cartographers in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century without any nod to the possible effects of common global fears of degeneration during those years, or the waxing and waning of empires (12-14)? And why, why did Wood insist on including me in all of this? I didn’t appreciate being called to and tugged at with these uses of the second-person, this “you” that Wood used, repeatedly, to break through the fourth wall. As though leaning across a table, or at the bar and over a foaming glass of beer, Wood says, “I know you’ve seen these…” (12). As though gesturing wildly before us and asking that we shout with him, as though evangelical and moved by the spirit, Wood cries out, “In the gap between? You, standing in the shower, the water shooting up from the underground, fountaining from the showerhead around you, …” (25, my emphasis). It is clear that he uses the second-person to pull us in, because he wants for us to join him, to feel present and a part of this experience, especially when he employs this “you” to speak in terms of ‘you, me, us’ (19). And it is because of Denis Wood’s use of the “you,” calling to me and to each of his readers, that the difficult shell around my difficult heart began to ease and crack.

Not every use of the second-person in Denis Wood’s Everything Sings is the same. As noted above, in some instances, the “you” is rhetorical, a conventional appeal to audience that easily links to any author’s concern for ethos. Some uses of “you” are emotionally charged, they seem to buzz and hum, to echo as though shouted from above a pulpit or lectern. Still other uses of “you” work to suggest the reader’s presence in the experience of the text, and seem to seek to blur that already sometimes thin line that separates sympathy from empathy. This version of “you” continues in its use throughout the larger text of Everything Sings, and comes to signify a “you” that Wood wishes to have encountered or had beside him while in the neighborhood of Boylan Heights. In this way, through references to the “power pole whose cables hum and sing as you fall asleep” or to the “stretch of sidewalk in which your kids wrote their names while the concrete was still wet,” Denis Wood offers his readers the lovely experience of what some have called “nostalgia without memory.” I first experienced this myself when reading Amy Hempel’s tiny story titled “Weekend.” When I read the conclusion of Hempel’s piece for the first time –

The women smoked on the porch, the smoke repelling mosquitoes, and the men and children played on even after dusk when it got so dark that a candle was rigged to balance on top of the post, and was knocked off and blown out by every single almost-ringer.

Then the children went to bed, or at least went upstairs, and the men joined the women for a cigarette on the porch, absently picking ticks engorged like grapes off the sleeping dogs. And when the men kissed the women good night, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women’s cheeks, the women did not think shave, they thought: stay.

– I felt nostalgia for something that I had never experienced, and therefore could not actually remember. But I felt as though I longed to return to those scenes, those people, and those places still. This is what I came to feel as I read Wood’s book, even after all of my urges toward stubborn denial: The Boylan Heights of Everything Sings was a place that I longed to return to, even while my mind informed me that it was a place I had never been. I allowed myself to feel moved by the beauty of some of these maps (“Pools of Light” (47) and “Wind Chimes” (91)) and fascinated by the accomplishments of others (“A Sound Walk” (88-91)). I wanted to believe that I recognized Lester Mims on his bike, swinging a paper so as to possibly make it to the porch (58) and I sat quietly and focused as I searched for the number 37 (“attempted suicide”) on the map labeled “Police Calls” (52-53), wondering about loneliness or isolation, about life as an unbearable weight, among these people – on the sidewalk, at the grocery store, around the corner – that I wanted to believe I had known.

Everything Sings, in the end, is not a book in which, as its publishers strangely suggest, “useless knowledge is exalted.” Everything Sings, instead, works to fight the privileging of quantifiable forms of information – that which is meted, “objective” – over the emotional and sensorial experience of place. Because of Denis Wood’s innovative approach to mapmaking, even crisp, dry numbers (“Police Calls”) and naked lines (“Squirrel Highways”) tell a story of people, of place, and the entwined experience of both. Everything Sings is remarkable in what and how it essays.

How Naïve The Essay?

I love Mary Ruefle’s book “The Most of It” because of its naivety, which leads her down delightful paths of thought and fancy. You want to hug her. You want to take her home. She’s endearing.

But how much know-how do we want from the essayist? Can everyone get away with Ruefling? Can naivety go too far and become strained and unbelievable? Can we really be that naïve in today’s fast-paced, technological, polluted, globalized world? Should we mitigate or offset our naivety? What is lost when there is no naivety in an essay?

Entries without naivety so far: The Gregory Brothers and David Shields. These artists situate themselves in the modern world with their savvy appropriations. The tones of their work are different: the Gregory Brothers are satirical and goofy but hip, while Shields is intellectual and intense; the Bros spoof, while Shields argues. In both approaches, something essential has been lost. This might sound too harsh but, for me, spoofing is for teenagers and convincing is for adults. Naivety has a whiff of the child in it. Naivety retains a refreshing degree of wonder, vulnerability, and curiosity.

The most naïve entries so far: Bahrani and all the maps, that is, Schalanksy, Solnit, and Wood. On the surface, “Plastic Bag” appears to be the most naïve work. I’m sure we could all convince a roomful of kindergarteners to write from the perspective of a plastic bag. But Bahrani’s work is polemic and ironic, and—sorry, I’m in such a harsh mood right now—gimmicky. Yes, I love Herzog. Yes, I loved the radical bags ripped on a barbed wire fence. But many of the scenes, I could not get behind, especially with what felt like inspirational music modulated in the background. Ultimately, “Plastic Bag” felt forced and affected.

I learned a new word the other day in class: “twee.” This term was applied to one of Solnit’s maps. You, as I, might be wondering what the hell “twee” means. I looked it up: “affectedly or excessively dainty, delicate, cute, or quaint.” The “Tribes of San Francisco” map reminded me of the laminated placemats I grew up spilling my food on. I never liked them as a kid—they were stuffy and uptight, meant for fake kids. Though Solnit has various maps—many of which are quite beautiful, many of which are cluttered and overloaded with information, she does not successfully tap into the child-like naivety that I am now arguing for.

So what are real kids like? How naïve are they? I think they’re more complicated than first blush. Kid fears must be weighed in—kids can be surprisingly dark and superstitious. Yes, they also adhere to their stereotype of uninhibited, honest, and carefree, but they know and sense more than they can express or fully understand and this can be ominous. What I’m driving at: the most successful naïve essays create a counterbalance for their naivety; they have an edge; they refuse to be cute; they throw in some adult.

For this tough naivety, my favorite essays thus far: Schalansky and Wood. They retain their wonder and imagination, their tactile welcome and fascination, but anchor themselves in dark and unusual places. We find loneliness, cannibals, dystopias, and issues of conquest in Schalansky. Though Wood is not as dark thematically—only one map, the police calls is overtly ominous—his maps transform surprising perspectives. He takes what might be a naïve impulse—jack-o’-lanterns, for example—and makes it map-able. Wood in many ways achieved what Solnit set out to do: to show that there exist an infinite number of possible perspectives to map. He allows his naivety breathing room, then development. His essays (within his overall essay) retain their child-like wonder, presence, and idiosyncrasy.

An aside: Soll’s “Puppet” has the subject of the naïve adult. What could be more uncanny and wondrous than a puppet, especially modeled off of a real human (no frills, no purple, no Barney)? But is subject enough?

Where my other favorite essay, Boully’s “Short Essay on Being,” fits in to this wayward discussion on naivety, I’m not sure. Her angst and revenge might have more to do with the teenager or the outraged adult. But studies have shown that when we are mad, angry, or threatened, we revert back to childhood reactions and behaviors. If she has naivety, it is mischievous, layered, and risky. She could have got caught at the end of her essay, and exposed herself not only to her culinary victim, but also to herself and the reader.

This is just to say, I like essayists who act as naïve adults: full of curiosity, strangeness, and the ability to get in trouble.

Shedding The Facts For Melody: A Response To Denis Wood's "Everything Sings"

When considering the intentions of this book, I had to question the ordering of its maps and what was being derived from them. Wood explains that "The maps toward the front of the atlas are about the neighborhood and its continuity in the city… [t]he maps towards the back of the book are about the discreteness in the city… [t]he maps woven in through the middle try to capture the broad givens of the front giving birth to the literal facts of the back, and vice versa: the churning and grinding that transform the city." So, to put these intentions to the test, I took a look at a few of the beginning maps (purposefully overlooking the first one, as I will get to it later).

The book initially intends to get at the guts of the town, showing a hill as if it was made up of topographic lines, then moving beneath it to “Intrusions Under Hill,” where gas, water, and sewer lines act like veins and arteries for a created body, as do the power lines in the next map (Squirrel Highways). What’s odd, though, is what’s derived from these arteries. The cables/pipes like arteries thing is a pretty obvious metaphor, but Wood does choose to end his angular, power line map by speaking about it not as a human means but as a means of transportation appropriated by the squirrel. Likewise, “Intrusions Under Hill” isn’t strictly about the transportation of human needs, but how those needs affect their surroundings, initially implying a negative connotation (the old humans ruining the environment thing) and changing it into an eerie balance (which seems forced here, but not in the next map) of human and nature, especially by positioning it next to Squirrel Highways.

As I see it, the ordering is quite logical: one thing triggers another. For example (please excuse the brevity): Boylan’s Hill turns into what’s under the hill, which turns into what’s on the hill –power lines, which turns into squirrels on those power lines, which turns into trees -because squirrels usually run on trees, which turns into tree canopies, then a realistic view of the tree coverage, then disfigured trees casting shadows, then pools of light created by lamp posts vs. those shadows, then the streets the lamp posts are on, and so on). So, while Wood seems to be transmitting the associative quality of his brain, he’s also supposing that there is an inherent network of stuff tied to humans, which in turn, ties to other stuff and other humans. This stuff is the stuff that ‘sings’ and creates rhythms (more on this later), as he puts it in his introduction.
But not only is the canopy map tied to the aerial view through ‘trees’ (because, well, they are both aerial views and have to do with what trees show and hide) it is also tied by references to Boylan Height’s history of urbanity and nature that lands in the space between guilt, nostalgia, and inevitability. “Broken Canopy” ends on a sort of guilty note about urbanity, as does “Aerial View” begin. But flip a few pages to “Pools of Light” and you get an interesting anecdote regarding the need for lamp posts in the 19th century, positing them as replacements for the moon. However, the map does not imply this guilt. Wood even notes in the introduction of how beautiful it was to watch his friend create the map and the circles of light with each brush stroke. So, does this map intentionally create a tension through juxtaposition?

As I mentioned earlier, I initially questioned Wood’s intentions regarding ordering, with each map seeming to logically speak to the one before it, the one after it, and their narrative components (basically showing how urbanity has broken down nature and there could be harmony, at least with the squirrels, but not really), then I came across “Pools of Light” which led me to recall Wood’s first map “The Night Sky,” which does work logically in that the night sky is expansive and yet weighted in the neighborhood from which it is viewed. Wood even quotes William Saroyan to wrap this point up, saying, “Birth is into the world, not into a town.” Then again, the quote and map/narrative seem oddly evasive as well. This map seems to function least as a map, but more as a picture. And its relation to the text, as I stated, is logical, but also creates a tension between Wood’s elaborate explanation of his team attempting to map this view and the uselessness of this map. I find myself not even caring if those stars are really in that specific place in the sky in that specific town. And what’s with the ones in the bottom right corner, hanging out in the darkness of the tree silhouettes? There is something oddly enlightening about this image, yet also illusive. This evasiveness, while not prevalent by any means in all of Wood’s maps, seems to come about more and more as the book goes on, leaving behind the nature vs. human idea and settling into a space that sheds the need to explain background information and facts, only showing present motion (ie: the routes of the mailman or paperboy).

It is here that Wood’s idea of rhythms, again, becomes prevalent. He notes:
"The incoming paper snaking through the neighborhood can be likened to the primary winding, the paper lumbering off in the garbage truck or the secondary. The milkman, the vegetable man, the mailman, the delivery trucks, the school and city buses (Bus Ballet), all are involved in bringing in stuff that, sooner or later, invariably transformed, has to leaves… the neighborhood inhales and exhales. It breathes."

Basically, Wood is initially presenting facts and background information that can be shed in order to give way to the narrative, the personal. This is akin to Wood’s last entry about “The Magic Tree Map Transformer Machine,” working through data to get to one, completely unique tree. In so many ways, Wood isn’t just speaking to what he’s prefaced in his introduction, but performing it. He quotes Christian Brown (through John Cage), saying (with regards to trying to only have sound without melody), “No matter what we do it ends by being melodic.” He seems to embrace the melody that Cage and Brown pushed away, calling it organic, then equates that melody to narrative, that atlases, pieces that can be read as pieces in any order are narratives. So, it is no wonder that Wood’s most successful pairings of maps and narratives are ones that don’t say the same thing, but create an evasive tension between what a map is supposed to create and what a narrative is supposed to say. Each seems to break the confines of their genres to speak to similar spaces, what remains of people and what they do in those spaces. Neither can quite be touched, but Wood certainly encircles them.

The only question that remains, though, is to what extent Wood goes to track down these melodies. He is concerned with rhythms of people (ie: the paperboy, the pumping of gas, the transference of electricity, etc) rather than who these people are and how they choose to group themselves in an area, implying a sort of arbitrariness about this that lends itself to the idea of the infinite (ie: Solnit?). However, Wood seems to have a very purposeful order, shedding his facts to get to the narrative. Given this propulsion, can Wood justly recall this arbitrariness to create melody when his ordering doesn’t seem so arbitrary?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Everything Sings

After the introduction by Ira Glass, after the opening essay by Denis Wood, Boylan Heights truly begins to hum. A stark white page followed by another with a single line written across its surface act as a palate cleanser, a pause, a cinematic fade-out then in leading to the body of work. We begin with “The Night Sky,” a map that will get us nowhere, but perhaps nowhere is where we need to go. Throughout Everything Sings, Wood excludes street names and cardinal directions, giving us instead things usually not mapped. “This is what you see at night, in early July if you’re in Boylan Heights and you look up at the sky,” writes Wood. Looking between the black edges of foliage we see a streetlight, stars, and the night sky and are reminded that no matter where we think we are, we are all here, and here as Carl Sagan says “is home, is us.”

Wood builds Boylan Heights in our imaginations bit by bit. The second map “Boylan’s Hill,” maps elevation. Here I feel that Wood perhaps missteps by giving us too much information in the text accompanying the map. Elevation plays a very real role in the structuring of the socio-economic hierarchy of Boylan Heights, something that we would be able to discover on our own if given a little less information. If say, Wood would have stopped at: “In 1858 the son crowned it with Montfort Hall, an Italianate mansion designed by the English architect William Percival.” In this case we would be able to discover the information contained in the following sentences:

“While it’s only 349 feet above sea level, it’s still downhill in every direction. And in every way. Fifty years later, when Kelsey and Guild laid out the neighborhood, they used the topography to set the social gradient: every strata of class from the mansion at the pinnacle down to the shotgun houses near the creek beds.”

Wood says in his opening essay that one of his goals is to imbue his maps with the stuff that makes poems resonate. I think he accomplishes this, but sometimes, I feel the words getting in the way of this resonance. The section titled “Newsletter Prominence,” is incredibly interesting because as we learn in the text, and opening essay, the newsletter is a product of the Boylan Heights Restoration and Preservation Association, which itself is a product of racism. This all resonates, but wouldn’t it really ring if all the information conveyed in the text could be conveyed in maps? Wouldn’t it really ring if instead of telling us, Wood let us make the correlations between the big dark circles in “Newsletter Prominence,” and the lit faces in “Jack-O’-Lanterns.”

Perhaps my tastes are extreme, but what would happen if there were no words in Everything Sings, or perhaps simply a short historical blurb to give us a bit of context without any direct mention of any other maps? Wood says that while he and his students were working on a map of Boylan Heights, they “began pairing away the inessential, the map crap (the neat line, the scale, the north arrow), the neighborhood boundaries, the topography, finally the streets.” Why not do the same with the words? Don’t sentences like “On the map, there’s a jack-o’-lantern at every address where there was one or more pumpkins on the porch, and most of those porches were at addresses that were frequently mentioned in the newsletter,” act as neat lines, as the north arrow?

The fact that I want no words, that I find them unnecessary, is a testament to the strength of the maps in Everything Sings. I have total confidence in their ability to convey everything Wood wants to convey. I return to the jack-o’-lanterns and newsletter to illustrate my point. If we had no words, but instead another map before this pair to cue us to the significance and origin of the newsletter, then the placement of “Jack-O’-Lanterns,” right after “Newsletter Prominence,” along with the graphic similarities in the maps would give me goose bumps.

Despite the words, the maps are astounding. I resist the notion that they are somehow impractical or useless. That is only true if we still think an atlas should be a compendium of lines and names that get us blindly from point A to point B, if we still think this is how we should be moving through the world. Wood’s take on an atlas is a take on place, a take on us. What is really important to know about a place? The lines and names, or the pools of light, the reverberation of chimes, the lit faces of pumpkins, the newsletters, the papers, the traffic signs? Wood asks us to look at the atlas, itself an instrument of war, finance, and politics, and consider what good our fervent quest for information has gotten us.