If I could step beyond this page and give Adam Dickinson an award for his wondrous debut it would have to be . . . well, I’m not on any jury, but I do have this space. And I’ll use it to say that Dickinson’s poems are luminous, subtle, and exceptional. How could any book, you might ask, with a title as awkward as Cartography and Walking, signal something so auspicious? Perhaps it does because Dickinson’s work needs no adorning; his poetry’s sharp economy of language and relaxed rhythms eschew any bells and whistles. So deftly does Dickinson mine the rural cartographies that his poems evoke not merely nature but one’s place in the world. The reader, taken with the spirit of this poetry, therefore comes to feel a sense of arrival, that this is the child-like thrill of home-free married to the mature, adult settled-and-content sense of home.
Dickinson’s feel for the local—he grew up in Bracebridge, the lake-speckled countryside that announces the impending, rugged North—also embraces quiet corners of the intellect. The opening poem, “Disappointment in the Masonry”, concerns bats, which “dart in the cover of tree tops / as though rushing from bathrooms to dress.” One in particular is found above the fireplace, “cramped in its brown shiver, / the body of an old man / hunched before a tub.” Dickinson’s unusual metaphor doesn’t rob the bat of its quality as much as remind us of how we try to assimilate the mysterious world beyond our door into reflections more obvious and, therefore, more comforting. This working of the intellect, nevertheless, cannot dispel the bat from the house. The occupants leave, with windows opened and lights turned off, suggesting that people must yield to the rhythms of the natural, in a manner similar to that of a poet finding words which will not supplant but, rather, inherit the raw material found around us.
Dickinson’s world of birds, trees, water, clouds and bridges soon realize the promise of his volume’s title. The notion of cartography is a human working of the landscape; the earth has not asked for a map and does not need one to demonstrate its very geography. Rather, walking over the land while taking quiet account of all the words we have invented might better help to synthesize the natural and the intellectual, and demonstrate that the latter need not lord over the former in order to acquire deep-rooted knowledge. Thus, in “Having to Start the Garden Alone”, the narrator finds that the spring soil “is a tap that has been running, / its cold is thick with slurred speech.” There remains little more to be said from the earth; its narration is plain and it will not yield more than its congealed essence. This feeling infuses the gardener—and, one likes to think, Dickinson—who calmly discovers that “it is frost / that bells within me now when I work.”