The elegy and eulogy, both as poetic form and social practice, fascinate me. While the poetic form of elegy orients itself in celebration and commemoration of a life, the eulogy, spoken directly at the graveside or urn, attempts to rouse, to re-member, to piece-back what has gone. Polish poet Adam Zagajewski described the elegy as that which “celebrates the marriage of past and present.”
Jonathan Andrew Pérez’s Cartographer of Crumpled Maps complicates the relationship between elegy and eulogy by bringing them closer to each other in American poetics.
As Mary Ruefle observes in “I Remember,” to “remember means to put the arms and legs back on, and sometimes the head.” To remember is to re-member the broken body.
Here, the poet carefully, tenderly, furiously pieces back and re-members the unnamed and forgotten. These poems are a memorial to wars against black and brown bodies, wars against nature, wars against the foreign, that this country has never admitted to waging.
In “Choose Your Own Adventure: Reparation As Fable,” Pérez subverts the trope of CYOA as a vehicle for socializing limited choice, revealing the injustice at the heart of a legal system created to rationalize unjust outcomes. Pérez brings the ghost of activist Lamar Smith, who was murdered in 1955, and whose murderer was never solved because 30 white witnesses refused to come forward and testify.
Fable, lime slugs and mango peepers, hail, under the purple verbena,
Charge, undertaker, full moon, a version of America cross-hatched,
Two fables, transmogrification and head-in-the-sand, you, choose your own
Rush in to fill the gaps; suddenly broad with uncertainty, choose your own
(from “Choose Your Own Adventure: Reparation As Fable”)
The poem combines juxtaposition of sense impressions and details in these “two fables,” building a false sense of motion and suspense to “page 86! this blood-hound on the stained trail” where a path forks in the case file. The tension between the rapid motion of the poem and the absence of resolution works to elicit a wail in the reader. I don’t believe this is accidental. I believe the poet is limning the haunting.
The “leitmotif of reparation” echoes in the interstices and silences of various poems. “Alien Imports” challenges the myth of settler innocence and the foundational narratives of Western (US) civilization. Pérez explores the psychogeography of interior and interiorized imperialism that underlies our definitions of success and national greatness. His day job as a trial attorney illuminates the text–and one imagines him reading case files or discovering archives and being so disturbed that the poem emerged as a form of alternate justice, a justice he feels helpless to render in the existing legal institutions. We see how muscled words like “nolo contendere” are flexed against foreign bodies. We see how the legal words, themselves, stand as walls against reparation.
A cartographer makes maps. Each map has a key, a series of symbols intended to represent places or physical features. The poet swears the maps are “crumpled”—the maps need smoothing. The poet re-renders the maps so that we might read them, see them, know them. The poet is saving a place, or a version of it. Maybe each map is a eulogy made into elegy by the uncrumpling.
As for the key, I’m fascinated by how Pérez challenges punctuation to re-signify and alter meaning. Take this excerpt from “Highway Beautification Act”:
Joints are joisted, we do not live in passing, the slow flapping of wings,
By the exit sign, a faint clammy day, we stay and small rarities, linger.
I want to read that last line with no comma in the final breaths; the natural flow would read “we stay and small rarities linger.” But the comma interrupts the flow, displaces the verb from the subject, raises questions of modification. The poet makes use of this tiny disruption again in other poems. Something as small as a comma on a map can change everything.
Simone Weil said, “The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth.” Perhaps we stand less at the crossroads than the threshold of things, the belief that objects and places can be charged with spirit, that they can serve as connectors or paths to the absent.
There was a bird that would not leave me alone after my mom died. There was a bird that kept me company in the land of the living deadness. There was a disruptive connection between this world and something else.
Grief is an intrusive presence that makes loss immanent in physical objects, whether bird or flower or heirloom necklace or place name. In this balance between the intrusions of the world and the end of it, the writer chooses what to preserve on the page. And Pérez consistently chooses how this country is haunted by white supremacy, as both institutions and a set of socialized beliefs.
Hear, the city where once, children, dreamt of life,
where Dad happened to pass an angel.
Hear, it fall from the sky.
(from “Fugitive Acts”)
I love how Pérez weakens and subverts the muscled legal words by use of juxtaposition, contrast, and syntax. In “Fugitive Acts,” for example, we learn of fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins, running for his life. After being captured by US marshals under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1950, Minkins was officially freed from a courtroom in Boston where members of the Boston Vigilance Committee assisted him and eventually got him to Canada through the Underground Railroad. The poem ends by repurposing “extradition,” defined as the action of extraditing a person accused or convicted of a crime, to apply to Minkins being forced to leave the US and make a life in Canada. When a human’s very existence is criminalized, there is no space for freedom.
Though we rarely focus on titling, I think the rich, difficult, and tantalizing titles of these poems do extraordinary work in framing what comes and offering us the lens Pérez wants us to hold when reading. Titles like “Reparation, or the Cartographer of the Godfather of the Soul,” “These Signifiers As A Flock of Bobolinks,” and “Highway Beautification Act” prepare us for the eerie, earth-shattering angle the poet will take. I appreciate the economy of titling that enables the poem to begin without introduction or wasted breath.
In a series of poems linked by birds, Pérez re-members the lost natural world. “A Dark Etymology: Eastern Meadowlark” begins in the altered space:
The meadowlark careens a cracked marsh,
historical dogwood stands stark incanting
the arms of pollution,
we once spelled “the world is on fire,” but held, a demiurge.
For this series of poems re-membering the natural world, Pérez uses the footnote as a formal device, a field guide for each particular species, an official account or archive that testifies to their existence. See, for example, the footnote for the meadowlark:
2. Sturnella magna L. 9.5″ ws. 14″ heavy-bodied, short-tailed, and long-billed. Obvious white outer tail feathers. Song of simple, clear, slurred whistles seeeooaaa seeeadoo with many variations. Flight call a thin, rising veet or rrink.
It’s hard to read this without trying to speak the meadowlark’s song aloud. This evidencing via footnote is both subtle, tender, and provocative—an assertion of uniqueness and a call to life. The poet re-members the great blue heron, eastern meadowlark, gulf fritillary, black-throated green warbler, barn owl, northern waterthrush, woodcock, evening grosbeak, osprey, and Carolina wren, among others. But this particular inventory is also personal and deeply interiorized, as we learn in “The Evening Grosbeak”:
The expungement of a record, I was not a latch key kid but due
a fort to return to, not a broken home, made my own
Violence, rarity, history, ratified by songbirds in the public
This list is an intimate inventory, a part of the poet’s personal archaeology, the collection of witnesses who stood in where humans failed. Sometimes these witnesses are birds. Other times they are the images that repeat throughout the poems, including angels, shadows, outskirts, candles, and various emanations of light.
The ongoing destructiveness of white supremacy is thematic for Pérez. One of my favorite poems, “The Deportable,” harks back to Homer’s Odyssey as a means into the eulogizing of Mexican lives and loss. In this long-limbed poem, Pérez mesmerizes with juxtapositions, linking the “ad hoc committee of angels of injustice” with the US stock market and “Zapatistas.” I marvel at the line: “A birth rite place is there, deported, flesh of my flesh extradited American handcuff.”
A suite of absences. One cufflink short of debilitation. To know loss is to be unknown by living. To follow the ambulance siren into deep, unfathomable red.
I marvel again: “A birth rite place is there, deported, flesh of my flesh extradited American handcuff.”
And I think the peculiar heaviness of these poems, the rue that rests in knowledge of the law’s tremendous weight, and how this weight is used against justice, originates in the poet’s relation to the law as a lawyer. As one who knows unfairness as only an insider can.
The tension between this power and futility tangles remorse and rage in many of Pérez’s poems, and the result is a persistent sense of grief, an unAmerican grief that cannot move on or let go or decide which emotional valence deserves emphasis. It is beautiful. It is powerful. It is devastating. The grief is, and will remain, important.