Recommended Reading: That the Science of Cartography is Limited

Today’s poem is another by Eaven Boland, recommended by readers Shanna and Laura. If we are exceptionally lucky, they will comment and say more specifically why they value this poem so much. Shanna, I happen to know, is doing some fascinating stuff with maps (the idea of maps, that is) right now. And even if they don’t, YOU, dear reader, should feel welcome to tell us all what you think of this poem.

ANYWAY–  Boland is an Irish writer (did I mention that? Did you read her bio?) and her poems are full of Ireland– its place names, its struggles, its symbolism, etc. So if you want to know more about Connacht (for example) or anything else specific to this poem that you are not familiar with, may I invite you google as you read this poem through the second time? Maybe that will enhance your understanding somewhat. And here’s a link to some stuff that Norton’s put together to enhance your reading. I think it’s a beautiful poem. Thanks, friends!

That the Science of Cartography is Limited

-and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

-Eaven Boland



3 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: That the Science of Cartography is Limited

  1. Ireland has always been the *one* country I have longed to visit… so this appealed to me from the start. But I really enjoy this type of poetry. I found it very readable and enjoyable.

  2. Sorry I couldn’t respond earlier–I was desperately attempting to finish a paper. Last week when I read through most of Boland’s collected poems, I was surprised to find a much earlier poem about a famine road. I can’t think of what it’s called now, but in it she tries to for a sort of historical narrative, and it’s just really ineffective, especially in comparison with this one. I think the strength of this one (or one of its strengths) is that it’s based in personal experience that broadens out to include the historical experience of the people who made famine roads. She is commemorating their plight, but we also see the speaker’s own subjectivity being shaped by this experience of a sort of subaltern history. The landscape where she encounters the famine road offers a different narrative of history than the narrative on the map–on which the road is notable only for its absence. Cartography is limited because it doesn’t (and can’t) adequately or accurately represent the real history embedded in the landscape. So the poem functions as a critique of maps and maybe even a broader discourse of representation, but at the same time, it implicitly suggests that one function of art is to help fill in the gaps that other discourses and modes of representation leave behind. This poem works to rescue the famine road from the absence on the map and give it a presence.

    Or, at any rate, that’s more or less what I’m going to argue in my maps paper. 🙂

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