Poems as Maps

An Introduction to the Series

In the tradition of summer reading, we present a special series on poems that can be read as maps, whose lines trace and transgress boundaries of identity and experience. Read the poems here.

Poems as Maps Series

We use maps to find our way in the world, to locate ourselves in relation to others, to measure distance and record change. Maps are inherently contextual, which can make them seem old-fashioned in a culture that values immediacy, one that operates through image and spectacle. The image is a mask, a face, a front, an arrow. The map is its opposite, not an index of the world but a way of relating to it.

This essay is a map that situates you and me in relation to the world as I know it, in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 2017, after the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile, a black man driving home from the grocery store. It is also a map to this series in Places Journal — a constellation of poems that marks a brief intermission in the usual flow of articles on buildings, cities, and landscapes.

This, too, is a map:

someone calling itself Light
has opened my inside,
i am flooded with brilliance
mother, 1

I was 27 years old when my mother died suddenly. She was 49. After the funeral, my youngest sister told me about a dream she had right before our mother’s passing. In the dream, my sister was alone in our childhood home on the south side of Chicago, and a black bird flew around the living room, desperate to escape. Every time the bird hit the wall or ceiling, great bursts of light would appear at the points of impact. Then, my sister said, she woke up.

When I first discovered the Lucille Clifton poem, “for the bird who flew against our window one morning and broke his natural neck,” I couldn’t believe she had put that bird into a poem: alive and then dead. Growing up as a black girl, living with racism, sexism, and poverty, I was used to hearing the world speak through voices that were not my own. I shaped myself out of the skins of others. Reading Clifton was a shock. For the first time, I heard voices and narratives that conveyed identities and experiences I knew. Here were poems about black and brown people, birds, flight, and death. It was a legend that unlocked the map of my life.

I’m not sure whether my sister, at the time of her dream, recalled the bird we had found at auntie’s house, when we were little girls. We spent the summer in a small town in southern Illinois, just east of the Mason-Dixon line. One day my cousin, my sister, and I found a brown baby bird lying in the grass outside auntie’s house. It wasn’t dead, it just couldn’t fly, so we put the bird in a shoebox with some green leaves and dried twigs. Somehow we knew not to touch it with our bare hands. We planned to play “healing veterinarian” the next day, and we hid the box inside my cousin’s bedroom closet, where we thought it would be safe. We might have pilfered a juicy pink earthworm from my uncle’s bait bucket for good measure.

Here were poems about black and brown people, birds, flight, and death. It was a legend that unlocked the map of my life.

The feathered patient quickly forgotten, we went on with our summer day — hanging upside-down on the broken swing set, sucking on sour crabapples that fell to the ground, and playing hide-n-seek in the creek. My aunt fried fish for dinner, and we ate meatless spaghetti, coleslaw, and white Wonder Bread at the round kitchen table. We ate catfish with hot sauce until it was hard to breathe. We brushed our tiny teeth, bathed our prepubescent bodies, and fell asleep all together in my cousin’s rainbow-lace canopy bed. The next morning we woke to the peeps of the resurrected baby bird, which had escaped the shoebox and was streaking around the house, while auntie, in her sheer green nightgown, waved the kitchen broom in the air like a mad witchdoctor.

“These got-damned girls have brought a got-damned bird into my house!” she screamed and cried. She held a Kroger paper bag in one hand and beat the broom through the curtains with the other. We girls just sat up in the bed, too afraid to move, dizzy from trying to track the swift bird with our human eyes. Eventually, auntie got the bird out of the house. I had never seen her so mad and so afraid, not even when my uncle, a coal miner, called her a fat-assed heifer for taking too long to bring him beer from the icebox. Later, auntie beat us with a switch snapped from the weeping willow in the yard. As the thin green stick whizzed and popped across the chubby caramel flesh of our exposed legs, she repeatedly commanded, like a rosary chant in time with her whips, that we never ever be stupid girls that bring fowl into the house, because a bird in the house was a sign of impending death for someone who lived there.

Now I am not necessarily saying that I believed in the bird as an omen, but I can report that my auntie emphatically did. Knowing this helps me access the place where she lived her life. Connecting these three birds — from my sister’s dream, Clifton’s poem, and the shoebox in the closet — I learn to read auntie’s life more carefully. I gain respect for her reverence toward nature and a higher power.  I understand her fierce protection of her family, her devotion to them, and her acceptance of her own mortality. I see where she is “coming from,” and I can orient myself toward that place and time.

Auntie helped raise me, she loved me, she fed me, and she clothed me. Like her own children, I witnessed parts of her life that would become parts of my life, too. She was a beautiful young brown woman with two children. She had not always been sad and mean, battling bitterness, obesity, and diabetes, verbally abused daily by the oppressed husband who was her sole provider. Unfolding the map of auntie’s life, I can plot its points with compassion, respect, and empathy. I get it now. For what was a bird in auntie’s house but a reminder of how she, too, had once flown free, how she had been young and in love with a hopeful bow-legged black boy who carried a football across the high school field into her open heart, before they both were confined by the cumulative constructions of race, gender, class, and place that Clifton illuminated for me.

A poem becomes a map when it crosses boundaries of identity and experience, when it shows us how to move through and beyond the spaces that keep us from one another, and keep us from our own humanity. The poem as map situates readers within larger contexts: cultural, historical, social, and spatial. It layers personal and universal experiences, interior and exterior perspectives, and then it invites us to transgress them.

The poem as map situates readers within larger contexts: cultural, historical, social, and spatial. It layers personal and universal experiences.

For this series, I have chosen works by thirteen contemporary poets, including nationally celebrated writers like Claudia Rankine, Nikky Finney, Ocean Vuong, and Elizabeth Alexander, alongside some of my favorite poets from the Twin Cities and others whose words have helped me situate myself in the world. Some folks say you don’t know what you don’t know, and with that in mind, I have overlaid poems that build bridges between different perspectives. Bao Phi’s Vietnamese woman in New Orleans, “who survived on her own for weeks by catching fish out of the muck and drying them on the windshields of half-submerged cars,” can follow the directions to Evie Shockley’s Carolina, “east of childhood, north of / capitol offenses, just west / of a big blue treasure chest : / wet coffin of neglected bones.” Somewhere beyond Barbara Jane Reyes’s “mapped cosmopolitan mudflats marshland in former lifetimes intersecting accident memory and an island named for angels,” we meet Sun Yung Shin’s speaker, who escapes “Down into the ocean, through story after story of water, darker as I became heavy as lead.”

Most of the poems in this series can be read as poems of resistance. They are relief maps that accentuate uneven terrain. They reveal ridges and hollows that are invisible on the standard road maps drawn by cartographers working within dominant systems and institutions, the maps that silence most voices and narratives. These poems also loop back through time to juxtapose a past with a present, and then break through into a new plane. I am interested in poems that trace the experiences of people on the margins, the people in between the lines, and then write them into a place of change and transformation.

Poems as maps help readers survey their selves and experiences. A poem can answer the questions that matter: “What happened, how did this happen, what else was happening when this happened, who did it happen to, how can I understand it, why does it matter, how will I make it out of this, how can we change this, what is my part in this, how is it aesthetically beautiful and valuable.”

As you read these poems, and as you locate your position among them, heed the wisdom of poet and birder J. Drew Lanham:

unfurl the map
aim the compass well
cause true north does lie
dead reckon instead on reality
find yourself there

About the Series: Poems as Maps

Our series on poems as maps features work by Elizabeth Alexander, Bao Phi, Joanne Diaz, Nikky Finney, Sean Hill, Andrea Jenkins, Douglas Kearney, J. Drew Lanham, Claudia Rankine, Barbara Jane Reyes, Sun Yung Shin, Evie Shockley, and Ocean Vuong.

  1. Lucille Clifton, good woman: poems and a memoir 1969-1980 (Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1987), 215.
Taiyon J. Coleman, “Poems as Maps,” Places Journal, August 2017. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/170801

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