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.

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