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What I’ve been reading… Kei Miller’s ‘Cartographer’

At the library I recently picked up Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet 2014), and it proved to be one of those books you start reading and can’t put down till you get to the end.

I’ve folded back so many corners of pages, to mark the poems I loved. At the heart of the book is a dialogue between a foreign cartographer intent on making a precise map of Jamaica (‘what I do is science’), and a ‘rastaman’ who explains the impossibility of it and distrusts the reasons for it –

the mapmaker’s work is to make visible
all them things that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquests of pirates, like borders,
like the viral spread of governments

(‘ii. in which the rastaman disagrees’)

The voices of the protagonists reveal the clash not just of cultures but of ways of seeing and thinking about our existence. Interwoven throughout are the stories behind place-names, the characters and history that has shaped the island, answers to the map-maker’s questions. A white mistress who ordered the road to her property be ‘laid in its serpentine way’ so that she never had to look at her black neighbour’s property which was bigger than her husband’s. A house given a fancy French name ‘Chateau Vert’ becomes corrupted to Shotover, and how the story now goes that the owner’s job was to shoot at runaway slaves, which shows that ‘when victims live long enough they get their say in history’ (‘Place Name, Shotover’).

The cartographer moves from his position of objectivity to wondering about Zion that the rastaman speaks of, and the question ‘how does one map a place / that is not quite a place?/ How does one draw / towards the heart?’ (xxi.)

So many of the poems are beautifully self-contained and yet part of the whole. I had so many “DAMN! I WISH I’D WRITTEN THAT” moments. Wonderful lyricism and clever, clever use of language, rhythm and rhyme…

…a hymn then
not to birds but to words
which themselves feel
like feather and wing

and light, as if it were
on the delicacy of
such sweet syllables
that flocks take flight.

(‘Hymn to the Birds’)

I can see why this book won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2014. If you’ve read it, tell me if you agree. If not, you should be able to get it in your local library (at the moment that is, until all the money is pulled entirely from public services, and libraries, museums, art galleries, parks, free healthcare and free anything all become things of the past.) I started writing this post as a way of taking my mind off how sad and angry I’m feeling today, and how ashamed I am of my country, and how sad I am to feel so ashamed. But I couldn’t stop it all welling up at the end. Sorry.

Published inAngstBlogBooksThe Reading List


  1. Rebecca Gethin Rebecca Gethin

    well, Robin, we are all feeling rather mapless all of a sudden. Thanks for the heads-up about this book…I must get hold of it.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Thanks Rebecca. Yes, maps. Clashes of different ways of thinking. Understanding (or not) the lessons of history. Perhaps this wasn’t the book to pick up today after all!

  2. Jill Fricker Jill Fricker

    Also suffering the Brexit-blues. Hastings, recipient of a LOT of European funding, votes to Leave. Bonkers. Time for a poetic protest?

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Quite! Why have all the regions who see the most EU money voted to leave?? Ugh. I’m hoping Carol Ann is going to come up with something soon…

  3. Jinny Jinny

    Yes — one of my very faves. And when he reads from it — wow!

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Yes! I heard him read at Aldeburgh.

  4. Heather Walker Heather Walker

    I’m also feeling sad today. Thanks for you post. I think I’ll give this book a try!

  5. Hi Robin,
    I agree with you that this is a tremendous read and just the thing to have as an antidote for Brexit blues. I bought a copy at Aldeburgh last year after hearing Kei Miller perform some of the poems. It’s definitely a book to keep coming back to.

  6. Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

    Thanks for your comments Heather & Caroline, glad you agree!

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Robin Houghton 2021