Stay-in-place time passes far from the hurly-burly clockface of Earlier 2020. It feels like we’re adrift in a stillness which echoes vastly down the abyss of geologic time, sails lagging, motion nil. Who knows when the world will resume, when jobs will be found and supply chains start up again, when restaurants re-open and concourses fill again with unmasked fellow travelers and celebrants and worshippers. When a vaccine is finally ready and offered, for sure: But how long that will be, no one really knows, and for now, we wait, lingering on in bewitched stillness praying for anything like a breeze.
Something I read yesterday in Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey fluttered my sails:
A woman’s body is prepared for burial in Thessaly in the fourth century B.C. Her lips are closed by a coin bearing the head of a gorgon, there to pay the ferryman who will carry her over a dark-watered river towards the realm of death. Placed on her chest are two heart-shaped leaves of gold foil, into which metal words have been etched. Together the leaves form a Totenpass—a death pass or death map. The text they bear is for her to read in the underland; it gives her directions to the dominion of the dead, where she will be placed in the care of Persephone. The text warns her of mistakes made by others, who have not navigated their way to safety in the underland and are now condemned to haunt the mortal realm eternally as spectres. You will find on the right in Hades’ halls a spring, and by it stands a ghostly cypress-tree, where the dead souls descending wash away their lives. Do not even draw night this spring … (246-7)
In maps to the underworld, the precision is—was—all. Great was the peril for taking even the wrong step left or right off the path. Remember the Tarot of The Fool, eyes dazzled by sunshine as he steps off a cliff? For such folly it’s hair, nose and eyeballs whistling all the way down to the eternally crashing shore, a sound which still chills us with the lament of the lost …
I wonder what happened to those death maps. Religions have offered life-sized versions of them, with careful instructions how to behave today for eternal payoff. Myth travels further back into the caves, setting up altars and reckonings deep in the Mother. But do those maps come close to the land of the dead? Somehow all our charts fall short of the far-westernmost island, Ultima Thule, Land of the Everliving …
And most of those maps have been overwritten by mortal, venal hands. Profaned. The imperial maps of capitalism are grand, trespassing far and wide and deep, laying some 50 million miles of borehole drilling down into the oil, shearing off mountains to claw out trainloads of coal. Invade pristine wilderness in holy search for gold, for lost cities with gleaming vaults, room after room further below. The cranium of something deep and lost 15 thousand feet down the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, drilled and pumped for the knowledge of gilt things. Arctic glaciers melted and refined to pour into crystal glasses aboard yachts named Anubis and Unsinkable II.
In an interview with Dianne Ackerman about Underland, Macfarlane spoke about recovering our way to the underworld:
I have for a long time been interested in practices of “countermapping,” most particularly associated as a practice with indigenous or suppressed cultures who seek to disinter and reinscribe forgotten or overwritten topyonymies and modes of perceptions … Mapping is always partial, and for that reason is always an expression of priority—and often an expression of power. … In Underland that has meant making visible those aspects, psychological as well as geological, that we have sought to bury, suppress, hide, or render obscene. Such things have—in trauma theory as in geomorphology—a tendency to resurface. (Earth Elegies, Conjunctions: 73, p 74)
It makes me wonder about the modern maps we reckon by, insanely accurate in one sense—how easy it is to drive to any location navigating with Google Maps—yet profanely unreadable for reckoning a soul’s history or a nation’s fall. And we thought we were sailing to Byzantium, disrupting deep time with our progress.
The time allows us moment to wonder at the maps we have followed, asking where they have lead us. Gazing through their tatters, we sense or sight a truer lay of the land? Do our ruins inter a darker, deeper cartography? Are there leys of ancient power just behind the formal lines of our surveyed towns?
What might those maps look like? Or, to read things backward (we do have the time), are there cartographies of deep time and stillness which betray the known maps of the world which no longer apply? Does our very understanding of landscape shift and relocate in the shatter of this here and now? Chastened by something so infinitesimal as a virus—one-one thousandth the girth of a human hair—what does that tell us a three billion-year-old planet’s grief at the lousy 10 thousand years of homo sapiens mastery?
And what of spectral, monstrous landscapes—vast stretches of tar sand wretchedness in Alberta, or carved-off mountaintops in Appalachia, oil-sogged Gulf beaches or whales dead with plastics filling their guts, or vast stretches of coral reefs bleached or a third of a continent of blackened bush: What instructions did we fail in getting here? By what reckoning can we call ourselves a success?
Is there hope perhaps, in charting a Totenpass for a human world bewitched by virus?
I don’t know, but it’s worthy of a weekly challenge.
What’s your NEW MAP TO THE OLD WORLD? What hidden perils and treasures does it reveal?
Contributions welcomed through Friday, May 1. Be sure to visit your fellow poets from around the world and comment on their map(s)
PS: Your map does not have to take us to dystopia or Eden; we may only have our damaged reckoning and an only faintly clearing view. (Who has much sense of the horizon ahead in the coming months?) Spiritual, political and aesthetic responses are all compromised. Let’s take that as par for this course and be encouraged to keep working for that reason, with nuance and guesswork. Heavens, we don’t even understand the virus we are contending with; how can we properly locate the changed geography?
Donna Haraway’s justly famous phrase for the task that faces all of us is “staying with the trouble.” There is no prelapsarian state of nature to be returned to, or even briefly accessed. It is impossible to write without a context of damage, decline, and injustice. The trouble needs to be clearly seen, and organized against up and down the levels, from local to global. But—and—keeping hope, love, wonder and the belief in possible betterment in view; this too is part of the work of staying with the trouble. (Ackerman interview in Earth Elegies, 77)