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.

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