Peace Corps Writers
The Cartographer's Tongue

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The Cartographer's Tongue
by Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86)
White Pine Press, $14.00
106 pages
April, 2000

Reviewed by Keith Cartwright (Senegal 1983–85)

AS ITS TITLE IMPLIES, The Cartographer’s Tongue charts something of Susan Rich’s poetic pursuit of the Peace Corps goal of bringing the world back home. But Rich’s project, like so much of Peace Corps experience, leads to radical disorientations and re-orientations of the idea of home. In the book’s opening poem, “Lost By Way of Tchin-Tabarden,” the nomadic Peace Corps speaker of the poem notes that “sometimes a system breaks down” and then comes to “feel relief at the abandonment/of my own geography.” The poem itself becomes a means of navigating a desert, a way of being “ready for something called home.” But we can be sure that the worlds and homes charted are radically different from what home might have been before the Peace Corps Niger experience, before Rich’s Fulbright in South Africa, before her service as an electoral supervisor in Bosnia, before so much of the re-orientation of truly engaged travel. Like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel” (alluded to most clearly in Rich’s “The Filigree of the Familiar”) Susan Rich’s poetry underscores the idea that the poet is always a traveler and that the land traveled, no matter how close or distant, extends and challenges our notions of home, asking “if home might be any dot on the map — /maybe the one which is furthest away.”
     While The Cartographer’s Tongue claims global citizenship, much of the book’s strongest poetry, the poetry that seems most at home as fresh cartography of the tongue, is the poetry set in the most familiar ground: family poems treating the deaths of both parents, truly powerful erotic poetry charting the travels of desire, and poems of “Edge Light” tracing the changes of passionately observed American landscapes. In “The Place,” erotic questions of travel carry an authority, a true-true exoticism that rises out of the simple language of lovers and the magic otherly-ness of rhyme:

    It is the search
    for the world we wanted,
    a scent of storm dust, of evening flower.
    The place far from every day
    That we bring to each other.

Susan Rich’s mapping of desire and of the traveling-after-its-memory makes for a sweetly haunting blues, an ever-moving set of jazz-like variations on the theme of a life and globe in motion.
     Questions of travel, “stations” of roadmaps and fossil fuels, charge Rich’s “The Scent of Gasoline” with a double panegyric to her travels and to her memory of her father:

    I miss the flying horse,
    the nether worlds of Gulf and Texaco.

    I miss the road maps, key chains, Rubbermaid cups;
    The belief blossoming behind the words fill ‘er up.

    My father’s world is gone now,
    His body returning to the oil fields underground.

    And to conjure him I breathe in
    the dangerous, clock the miles to the gallon

    before the needle stops traveling backward — falls
    unencumbered, empty, lost.

But if it is the most familiar travels that ground the poetry of The Cartographer’s Tongue, the poems that are most clearly “about” cultural displacement and global witnessing work to remind us that all poetry is a travel-log and a poetry of witness. Once again, the most powerful poetry of witness rises not from “travel” poems such as “Haiti” and “Sarajevo” but from “In Our Name," which implicates the American reader in the electrocution of a Florida prisoner. Old benchmarks of home are always in motion in Rich’s poetry. Like the surf of “Edge Light,” the world of Rich’s wide travels returns to us, “moving closer, further back/before it’s over, re-patterned,/lost and released.”
     The Cartographer’s Tongue is a fresh and accessible charting of a poet’s efforts to be at home in the world, in the body, in a testy humanity. It speaks to the kinds of desires and awakening to the world that the Peace Corps experience often fosters. And Susan Rich’s impressive first book brings it all home in such a manner as to participate in a re-mapping of home through a lyric voice of witness that would call us to global responsiveness and responsibility.

Keith Cartwright served as a fisheries Volunteer in Senegal. He teaches English at Roanoke College in Virginia, and taught previously at College of the Bahamas, Selma University, and Coastal Georgia Community College. His long poem, Saint-Louis: A Wool Strip-Cloth for Sekou Dabo, treats his Peace Corps experience, while Junkanoo: A Christmas Pageant, emerges from historical and geographic channels between the American South and the Bahamas.
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