Map of the Known World

Think of unmapped spaces, something blank, still
rich with what might be. Take the map of Russia

in 1572, its furthest east filled with drawings—exotic
tents, Tartars, elephants—and fabulous speculation.

In the rooms of a Venetian museum, a clear Adriatic
light slips across a varnished floor. There are maps

of beasts coiled in oceans, imaginary worlds, elusive
paradise. The edge of the world borders heaven

or hell. Why not risk everything just for a look
at what’s beyond? Here’s Vespucci, finely engraved

with his astrolabe, banner, cross. What’s he saying
to America, reclining in her hammock, that shocks

her out of a nap? Surely he will come to know her body,
trespass those open spaces, naming and blessing every one,

so that Europe makes its claim on elbow, knee, breast. Yes,
look, each part is mapped, except for military secrets,

kept hidden. Even now, some things don’t appear
in the road atlas, but you know they’re there: a hairpin turn

where anyone could lose control, that abrupt fall
into nothing and lost, a steep bank littered with failed

refrigerators, toilet tanks, one sprung couch. Map this
disintegration, show where we came into it and went out,

and put it on a wall in a museum, where tourists whisper,
shoes tapping discreetly, as they move from one thing to the next.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Map of the Known World”?

I liked the idea of not knowing the whole of the world, because it had not yet been mapped. I was interested in the idea that some part of the world was left to the imagination, because it had not yet been explored.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Map of the Known World”?

I wasn’t interested in any poetic form, like the sonnet or villanelle. This is free verse.

This poem “Map of the Known World” originally appeared in Nature / Culture. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001): 19.

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