Sound, Collage, and Hybridity as Lyric

Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World by Kathryn Cowles (Milkweed Editions, 2020)

“This day has a quietness / that sticks” read the first two lines of the poem “Ohio” in Kathryn Cowles’s second collection of poems, Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World, and if there is just one, singular distillation that we should internalize from the late Linda Gregg, let it be her playful use of sound as a vehicle for the lyric. Let sound and its transcription leap from one sense to another—the poems in this collection are exemplary of the synesthetic experience of Gregg’s poetic practice. “Ohio” continues with:

The writing

makes a noise like sheets,

then a quietness.

Yesterday, a sky I could

live with. Day before, wind.

I pushed the side of my car

up against the great nothingness

of air, and it pushed back.

This magnified examination and careful attention to all forces that exist within and around us lift Cowles’s lyrical meditation on distance, mappings, transcriptions, and topographies to a startlingly original and heightened experience. The speaker in “Ohio” takes in all of nature’s daily nuances and releases its quiet intricacies back out with emotional resonance—the “I” is both witness of nature and object of its agency. The ordinary and mundane become extraordinary through the speaker’s emotional stakes:

Yesterday the sky had height,

the clouds were measurable

and various. Dark and light.

the blue between the clouds was blue.

Cowles’s craft nods to both formalism and the avant-garde—rhyme, repetition, and avian imagery are driving forces behind the poems; however, Cowles takes these craft elements to a new place by combining visual poetry, prose poetry, and lineated verse into one multi-sensorial experience. The poems here are, as the title suggests, mappings and transcripts of physical topographies, but they equally belong to the speaker’s internal, emotional landscape, and Cowles’ achieves this internal/external exploration through the collection’s hybrid lens. The collage photos offer visual breath for the reader, and their accompanying, fragmented texts narrate the various images of landscape. Many of the photos contain lyrical self-descriptions, void of any “I,” that in return put the photos into motion, which appears to be one of the thesis statements for Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World (the epigraph for the collection is a quote by John Berger which reads, “The waters change all the while and stay the same only on the map”).

A large white house Description automatically generated

The fragmented, almost Sapphic text suggests motion, history, and archiving of both the image itself and of the emotional stake of its existence: “Paper with tape / sky a wash / a bowl of water / something to hold / the house put” could be read as an erasure à la Mary Ruefle, or an intentional scribing on the photo by its steward. Like in the quote by John Berger above, Cowles crafts these images to imply time, history, and change in a way that ordinary maps do not; so much has changed within oceans, yet the macro lens of a paper map won’t readily reflect that. That is, each of these images contains emotional dissonance solidified over time, which is then brought to the present by the accompanying text.

Transcription and sound occupy as much tonal space in this collection as the visual does, and some of Cowles’s strongest lyric moments are not just grounded in image, but in sound itself. Such is the case in the poem “Transcript of Birds,” which of course, based in the realistic tone of the collection, is void of any verbal dialogue, but rather simply (or not so simply) demonstrated by dashes to signify a language not comprehensible by human readers, yet nonetheless as potent as our language can be. Instead, the emotional resonance between the birds in the poem is narrated by movement:

The two birds on the left

sit and the third bird says

[third bird:]  ———–

———–

———–

[shakes its wings]

———–

———–

[second bird flies off, back again, off]

The resulting mapping of posture and sound from the transcript is both a testament to the scope of language and to a point where language limits itself. For example, from the bodily language of the birds, we can tell that their communication, in this case, is transitive and warrants physical response, even though readers are only guided by stage direction rather than by actual dialogue. Cowles’s transcripts of birds continue throughout the collection and highlight her ability to capture the ordinary and make it strange, startling, and new. If we define the lyric as the mode of emotion in poetry and poetics, then we don’t need language in this case to perceive lyricism, only the physical response and direction from the characters in the piece because they successfully capture what is at stake. Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World by Kathryn Cowles is a vibrant installation in experimental American poetics that emphasizes the strength and potential of hybridity between environmental sounds, language, and the visual. This potent interaction creates new, handsomely bizarre, and excitingly new feats for poetry. As readers, we are brought to new proximities in these poems not just with the exterior mappings of our surroundings, but with our very own interior. I trust what the speaker can and cannot say in these poems—what is presented through image and through the sound of birds. Cowles has shown us a new kind of map, and I can’t stop listening to it.

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