The Cartographer’s Ink, by Okla Elliott. New York, New York: NYQ Books. 108 pages. $14.95, paper.
I met Okla Elliott in 2004. At the time, he was doing coursework for his first master’s degree and working at a university library. Ten years later he is the same man, only more so—further along in his career, further along in his thinking. He now has two additional master’s degrees and is nearing completion on a PhD. He has published a short story collection (From the Crooked Timber); next year will see the publication of a book of translation (Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker) and a novel (The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, which I had the privilege to co-write). And in August he released a book of poems, The Cartographer’s Ink. The progression of his thought and writing is nowhere more evident than in this collection.
I have read all these poems many times. I have seen the strong early drafts and the finely calibrated works they later became. Some of the poems even predate our friendship. I don’t want to overly determine your reading of this book, but there’s been a clear evolution of Okla Elliott the poet. The evolution has been toward the expansive, toward the ambitious, toward the philosophical. A poem like “Alien War, Human War,” one of my favorites in the collection and a poem that perhaps only Okla could write, might not have been possible all those years ago.
Here is the fourth section of “Alien War, Human War” in its entirety:
The imbricated self, the implicated subject.
The guilt-threads are tightly knotted.
Imbrication, implication—the nouns sound
so alien, so Latinate
I can’t feel my way into their fact. Abstraction
alienates lived life. To make others alien
we must abstract them to mere ideas,
not particular flesh and thoughts peculiar
to them. To kill others we must make them alien.
Murder, therefore, is an abstraction abstracted.
All this is not to say that the earlier, simpler poems don’t have their charm. The best of them have made their way into this collection, lending it a variety of techniques and tones that enrich the readerly experience. And this is also not to say that Okla wrote no complex poems when I first met him. “Wishing on a Shooting Star My Friend Informs Me Is Likely Just a Satellite” is an older poem, yet it bears an epigraph from Newton and is three pages long. Nor is he incapable of writing a simple poem now. But I would argue that Okla’s appetite for, and storehouse of, knowledge have become too large to be satisfied with the simple. At first, his poems moved out into the world (to Korea in “Lonely in Seoul,” or to Missouri in “Reading Kierkegaard near the St. Louis Arch”), then they moved out into the entire history of human thought. “Reading Kierkegaard” actually presages what I’ve come to think of as Okla Elliot’s third stage: the poet-philosopher. Poems like “On Perfection” and “That the Soul Discharges Her Passions Upon False Objects” seamlessly meld the personal with the high philosophical in a way that is uniquely Elliottian (I will leave some future scholar to come up with a better term for it).
These later poems are my favorite in the collection, and among my favorite poems I’ve ever read. Maybe you will disagree. Maybe you will prefer the concision and the relatability of the earlier work. I would understand if you did; and I would be happy about it, because it would mean you’d bought and read this excellent poetry collection. Know this: regardless of which territory Okla is mapping—the emotional, the intellectual, the geographical—you can be sure that he will do it with the deft hand of a natural cartographer, using formal skill, original thought, and poetic intuition as his ink.
Raul Clement lives in Urbana, Illinois. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in Blue Mesa Review, Coe Review, As It Ought to Be, and the Surreal South ’09 anthology. He is an editor at New American Press and Mayday Magazine.