A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
By Gregory Mahrer
Fordham University Press
Reviewed by Cristina J. Baptista
To read Gregory Mahrer's A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent, winner of Fordham University Press' 2016 Poets Out Loud Prize, is to open up a photo album expecting familiar faces, and, instead, find a book about ghosts. Indeed, this collection is one that haunts. When one poem, "A Sequence of Knots," concludes with the line, "An apostrophe awaiting possession," the grammatical connotation is not the only sort of "possession" that comes to mind. In Map, readers find "A ghost continent," and "every ghost, passing through / reflection and into incalculable air." Ultimately, this is a hypnotizing, magical collection that blends the clearing of throats with the clearing of paths. Mahrer's work lifts rocks (real and imagined) and examines the not-so-quotidian lives beneath. After reading this collection, readers will want to replace the rocks just as they've found them and leave this imaginative geography as unsullied by over-consciousness as they found it.
Map, too, is a work of archaeology into a time before there was seemingly anything worth leaving behind. "Each moment carries extinction in its mouth," Mahrer writes in "Inquest at Century's End," but, as other poems such as "Hinterland" expose, there was always "sunlight of old empires," marshlands, cities, and "the arc of a public square" already forming on mysterious winds—a land before people, just waiting to be populated. In this way, Mahrer creates a preamble to life, as if Map is one part Genesis and one part history book. It is a path made of sutured scraps of physical truths and impossible imaginings. As much a journey through landscape as through language, the collection feels both familiar and mythic, rooted in the present and the ancient. Like Penelope at her loom, Mahrer pulls and plucks out threads, more content with possibility than the final product. Acts of dismantling and processes that "unravel" appear in the poems, as does the suggestion that "Memory is too much in the world, and us barely held in its weave."
Map offers a textured world of historical, mythic, and imaginary places—"half-remembered interiors"—that cohabitate with the naturalness of a young tree sprouting through some animal's ancient eye-socket. Space and time collapse and stretch again with the ease of an accordion and, indeed, the musicality of the language is heightened with the ubiquitous presence of birds, repeating motifs of land and nature, and the dizzying energy that approaches the desperation of an apopheniac's frenetic search for answers. On every page, we find "the windfall of imperfect / translations," a speaker who has "lived a long time between utterances." Readers are begged to populate this seemingly primordial realm, "where everything, even extinction, is still waiting to be invented." Mahrer trains a discerning eye upon every small thing and finds the story buried in border places just "Outside the frame," where "shimmer wants our attention." This is the "true poet" who "turns the world to glass" via "an ulterior intellectual perception," as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in "The Poet." The imperative voice enters often, begging, "Tell me more," and "Stay with me," and "Tell me what you know." This collection puts its ear to the ground, the trees, and the sky, and waits.
Mahrer is predominantly concerned with questions: How to categorize experience? How to bring mind and body, past and present, sea and land and sky together? How to chart the paths where, perhaps, we walked hand-in-hand with others in another life? How to "codify the interval / between hand and eye" or do the impossible? The act of becoming or investigating what is on the cusp of transformation is what most interests Mahrer.
Map is an excavation of that ancient, impossible-to-map city of throat and bone, language and thought. The mind goes along, following the trail willingly. Even the "unaddressed envelope" mentioned in "An Unaddressed Envelope Fills with Snow" is an alluring invitation: how easy to imagine that it is destined to be addressed to the reader. When Mahrer writes, "Who had prepared the way back better than I?" it is a good question. Who better to guide us back to a time and space before humanity than the poetic speaker, who seems to have a vision looking and moving always hundreds of years just beyond us, in either direction? Mahrer's exquisite work offers a revisionist Eden of sorts—entering nature as not just "the first" but "the first / to be overcome by a delirium of trees" where forbidden knowledge hangs on every branch, even when the forest becomes a "series of streets," a wintry tundra, or a "spine of stars." Everywhere, there is something to be collected, to be tallied—to be savored.
Mahrer finds the most beauty in the raw and unfinished, or the pieced and reinforced, like kintsugi, the Chinese practice of using melted gold to refasten pieces of broken bowls. In the re-forging—the return to repeated motifs, images, and words—the whole of the collection becomes stronger. And the true exquisiteness is in the overlap, the fragments, and the scars of these poems. Following the trail of one leads to another, which flourishes in its intensity and message from poem to poem. Much of this swelling intensity is achieved through recurring images, repeated terms, and playful and sometimes ambiguous fancies with grammar. For instance, "swallows," mentioned in the collection's opening poem, "Red City," is a term that returns again and again. At times ambiguous, "swallows" can be an act in the throat; it is sometimes a bird. It is oftentimes both. Mahrer is not always clear in his meaning and yet the poems function just as poignantly because they require a little work on behalf of the reader. The unfolding transformations are at the heart of Map, and the perplexing yet joyful awareness of how even overlooked items can have a sentience is engaging. A window's previous life as sand, for example, is recalled. A flock of birds in the title poem reemerges as a gathering of "shabbily dressed" partygoers in "Dinner Guests." These are all things "caught in translation" and set free among the pages of Map. Mahrer makes reincarnation possible. Objects, nature, the living, and the unliving: all find an alternative role in a world populated by language and the stirrings of a not-so-little life. Words are familiar but their meanings and contexts can be elusive—just out of reach. It is felt more than understood.
In another sense, while there is an ambulatory sense present throughout Map, flight is often the choice mode of travel—even when birds or other fliers seem grounded or dead. But this collection is more than a flight of fancy. "None of us can loosen the shrouds of ice / or remember the circumstances of our arrival," Mahrer writes in "Blackout." Yet, the collection reminds us that the mystery of evolution is a thing of beauty, necessarily beyond human translation into language. If a reader feels confused and is left wanting more at the end, that is a good sign. This is the kind of book that makes a reader want to read more poetry and a writer want to write more in hopes of adequately responding to Mahrer's often-questioning poems. Although Map does not offer "the heaven we counted on," as the final poem, "Afterlife," includes, it is the heaven we didn't know we needed. In the end, A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent forces readers to take another look and reconsider their perspectives about the landscape of lives and language and who they are in the everyday moments of life—that is, the moments of becoming.