Blog Post / Fall 2016 / Issues / Poetry / Poetry 2016 / Volume 47

Exhibition: Early Maps of the Americas–Stephen Cloud

(a museum docent speaking)

The mapmakers must have let magical thinking
guide their work, hearsay and conjecture shaping
the newfound lands to match their desires and fears.
Just look at these illustrations, how they construe
an interior replete with precious metals,
cannibals, chimeras, and rough beasts.
Some cartographers, following Columbus,
located Eden, the lost Garden,
high atop a shrouded peak unseen from sea.
Such beautiful maps, but useful only
for explorers chasing after illusions.

This one depicts a much-distorted coastline
claimed for a king whose advisors
at first doubted the expedition’s value.
His majesty frowned upon hearing word
of a new world. He could not comprehend
reports of jungle tumbling to shore,
naked hordes lurking behind elephantine fronds.
It was all beyond his imagination,
yet he accepted possession as divine right
and signed this charter thereby colonizing
his newest subjects, declaring them Christian.

On several maps, a shape-shifting island appears,
floating unfixed across the grid.
Marginal sketches depict prolific flora
and fauna but no people. Mountain ranges,
inland lakes, forests of feathery trees,
bears, crocodiles, horned beasts now extinct.
Later maps track the course of galleons and barks,
a fleet bringing goats, pigs, rats.
Men and vermin race over the terrain.
What becomes of this island?
Stripped, gnawed to the bone,
pulverized, gouged, swallowed in the sea.
A Latter-day cartographer stands at the deck rail,
studies the empty horizon through glass.
Concerning this purported island, he writes,
our expedition finds no sign, and we are satisfied
to declare it an island that never was.

See how on this large map the supple curve
of our own harbor has been roughly captured,
the first appearance of the city’s original name,
a Catholic enthusiasm later abandoned in favor
of Protestant sobriety. At the time our city of dreams
was a mere encampment where the king’s viceroy
made landfall and envisioned a God-fervent colony—
fortress, chapel, prison, and bountiful hectares
under enslaved cultivation, the divinely ordained labor
of those subjects who would soon make the diseased trek
to reservations already plotted on maps not yet made.

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