By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2015 NGC Bocas Lit Fest Blogger
“So every night while the mapmaker expands
on his network of secret roads and slaving roads,
marooning roads and blackbush roads,
what he has really concerned himself with is Zion —
a question has wedged itself between his learning
and awakening: how does one map a place
that is not quite a place? How does one draw
towards the heart?”
-“xxi.” from “The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion”
You could think of Kei Miller’s newest book of poems as a necessary conversation: one conducted between two opposing forces with more in common than meets the eye, held outside by an existential Kingston standpipe. The questions aren’t new: Where are we going? Of what things are we, and this island, and all islands, fashioned? The inventive novelty of their phrasing lies in Miller’s approach to his subject matter: his narrative voice summons the role of a map-maker, a figure of scientific course-charting and investigative spelunking. His spiritual and ethical diametric, the rastaman, understands topographies differently: for him, there is rootedness in the soil and the people who derive sustenance from it, from “the board houses, and the corner shop from which Miss Katie sell her famous peanut porridge.”
Winner of the £10,000 2014 Forward Prize for Best Collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is heralded in Bethany Pope’s Magma Poetry review as a linguistic dialectic, one that marks “specifically the difference, contrasts, and eventual fusion of European and Caribbean styles of story-telling.” The Zion so ardently sought after by the cartographer is both a desirable wilderness and a monument of reckoning, an “accounts settling day… a ‘reach deep inna yu pocket and pay de bill cause more than lights and water going to get lock off today’ day.” For a collection that tackles this singular ambition — of delineating Zion and remarking on its absence — Miller’s fourth collection also speaks boldly, with humour and pathos, from numerous other positions of woe and elation alike.
As I enthused when I reviewed these poems for the Trinidad Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section, “you can come to this body of work for paeans to rubber ducks, and for lamentations of the master’s lash alike, both rendered with an immaculate sensitivity.” This multivalency in the poet’s motivations, and the deft, delicate turns of language used to achieve them, mark The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion as a delight of form, tone and thematic core.