Review of Cartography and Walking
From Steven Ross Smith , Prairie Fire Review of Books (2003)

Cartography and Walking by Adam Dickinson

In Cartography and Walking, Adam Dickinson’s first book, the poet moves through territories internal and external with a remarkable gift for metaphor and simile, and with a fresh and strong use of language. It is hard to speak for this book, as it speaks so eloquently for itself. I would like simply to present a long selection of marvellous quotations, but I will fulfill my duty and insert a few of my own words.

The book is divided into three sections: “Escarpments,” “Cordillera,” and “Standing Water.” The poems throughout grow mostly from situations in nature, but the elemental pulse of the human corpus is never out of view, as shown in the opening lines of “When We Become Desirable”:

There is a genus of spruce so enamoured with the sky
it is painful to look at its blue needles —
like watching someone give themselves
so wholly to a doomed love (23)

“Escarpment” is perhaps the high place, the place of origins. Astonishing lines and images abound. There is an articulate mind at work here, one with a marvellous ear, an assured poetics, and ability to weave delectable lines into rich poems that invite, even compel the reader to pause, dwell and savour — like this, from “For a Nominal Form”:

A rocking chair could be a piece
of something fallen from a clock.
It moves in its mechanics
like a metronome to signatures
of thinking in the floor boards. (30)

Or from “Eastern Hardwoods”:

your first dog, whose hips
became the softened middle
of waterlogged oaks, (38 ).

“Cordillera” is a section title and is the long mountain spine of a place that invites travel and investigation. It is the defining feature of a landscape. The poet moves along this backbone, charting travels through places and seasons, objects and beings; and there are boats, deer, cherry wood, rivers and more, again rife with invention, as in “Cartographer”:

In Saskatchewan the contours tightened,
cliffs gave way under your breastbone,
thin roads held gravely to your hips,
and pressing firmly, the sky became an overturned train
with its freight the black of clouded hills, (45)

or in “To Grand Manan Island”:

A pickup waits for the ferry. Its axle hangs
too far beneath its corrugated box,
it is a man whose jeans have slipped down
his narrow hips and stands slouching toward
the black and barnacled water at the edge of the pier. (57)

Not all Dickinson’s images are transparent. This is a poetry to mull over and chew, to contemplate, and even when the answer is not easy or forthcoming the reader still senses an essence, a tantalizing almost-revealing glimpse at mystery, as in the second part of “Mapping in Seven Parts”:

The cutlery glints in its cloudless
accomplishment, the embouchure
of wet loons. (62)

The book’s third section, “Standing Water,” might be the place where things slow, where memory is a place to dwell before departure:

Splintered clouds begin to bloat
as they lie across the cars
like the decomposing edge
of a mildewed fishing jacket (“Concerning a Sudden Departure,” 91)

The differences between the sections are subtle, but they reinforce the travel/mapping/landscape themes, which are there in every poem. As poems and images accumulate, as one reads through, this book reveals a poet immersed in whatever situation catches his attention. He pays a deep attention—to detail, to the natural world, to human affairs in that world. He is almost always an unintrusive, attentive and respectful participant in whatever realm he inhabits, and the marriage of observation and honed craft strikes very fine poems.

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