Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World
by Kathryn Cowles
Milkweed, 2020

Kathryn Cowles begins her poetry collection with an epigraph from John Berger, “The waters change all the while and stay the same only on the map.” She brings the reader to the earth, to a place of questioning what we know, and to questioning the role of maps, the limits of their knowledge, and their role in our lives. At a time when many of us are yearning for clear directions from a reputable source, when a simple how to get from here to there feels impossible, when the world seems anything but ordinary, Kathryn Cowles’ Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World is a reminder to see the world around us, a beautiful return to noticing, an invitation to circle and remember.

As I write this, I could be infected with Covid-19 and not know it. As you read this, you could be infected with Covid-19 and not know it. Many of us will not know for months if we have ever had the disease that is holding our collective attention. Cowles’ book was created in the before. Before we made each of our decisions, and marked so many of our moments, in light of an international pandemic. But this poetry speaks to our now and speaks to our future. This is the right book to read when we are asking the questions of, “How did we get here?” A book that is a reminder of Audre Lorde’s famous proclamation, “Poetry is not a luxury.” Cowles’ work is a testament to poetry as survival, as a way forward.

In four sections, “Island,” “Tide,” “Plain,” and “Port,” Cowles does the work of mapmaking and map dissecting. We move through a series of different landscapes with her particular, detailed eye.

In the opening poem of the collection, “Origin Story,” we arrive in Greece with the “I” of the poem and we feel the call to write, the call to capture the world as it is,

and I wanted it down
in paper
sun rose and I wrote
sun rose
and then I wrote that I wrote it,
never in my life
wrapped in paper
have I ever so much
wanted it down

Urgent, yet knowing from the beginning the joy and impossibility of the task of writing the ordinary world, the sun rising again every morning. In each page of her second collection, Cowles calls us to pause and notice with her.

Her text and image collages are unique in capturing what is missing from standard maps. Cowles’ version of maps hold you in place, asking you to pause before moving across the water or the land. Her collage maps ask the viewer to consider what it means to be where you are; a lauded pushback against the maps of technology only considering the quickest way from Point A to Point B. Carrying Berger’s message about water with us, she asks to consider what moves in her map without moving. In “Map [water boat water],” the first collage of the collection, the text

this is a bridge that gets you to the water
there is the boat that gets
you to the bridge
this is the water here

is pasted over an image of a boat on water next to dock (5). We begin to understand this book is a consideration of the definition of maps and of function, an exploration of the quotidian. The juxtaposition of image and text can be read as instructions, or perhaps a retraining, in what it means to use a map and what it means to be human in the ordinary world.

With a reverence for life moving around her, her poems hold us in time passing, and in travel. In the second section, “Tide,” she writes,

Also it is beautiful, this our everyday view from breakfast, and also it is completely ordinary. I want to commit it to memory. I want to commit it to memory. The photographs slip in place of memory, metaphors for the actual landscape.

Transubstantiation. Out of my hands. I sit and watch.” (“The Day Before the Day Before We Have to Leave,” 29). With the repeated line, “I want to commit this to memory,” we feel nostalgic for what hasn’t happened yet, the recognition of being in a memory while we are still living it. She makes us aware of the noticing of the passing of time. She questions not only the function of a photograph, a map, a list, a postcard, but the reality of them.

There are brief bursts of humor in her observations. She begins the third section, “Plain” with a poem called, “I am on a plane.” I read this as part hope for what we can return to, the extraordinary mundaneness of travel, and also as a time capsule of what riding a plane used to be. “I’m on a plane and/ the woman next to me/ has a project” (35). This moment with her on the plane also brings me to the isolation of trying to hold movement in the confined space and the knowledge that where we are going is out of our hands,

Am I getting anywhere?
I must be
if slowly
if bit by bit,
an act of faith
hurtling through the sky

She writes the questions we are all asking.

She begins the final section of the collection, “Port” with a poem called, “Boat Tour” that reminds us humans have not only survived war, we have gone on to take tours of it.

You will see to your left the new port
you will see to your right the old,
to the left the clocktower,
only remaining piece of—
bombed by the Germans when the left,
now a great distribution center for fruit

These lines capture the dark humor of human ingenuity and dedication to forward movement with commerce. Both morbid and beautiful, we see that there is a kind of light on the other side of destruction. But what destruction already exists in the light? What destruction already exists in the everyday capitalism of fruit distribution and tourism?

I found a gift of light in, “Field Guide” which gives the reader flowers,

it is a red one it is
desert paintbrush it is skyrocket
is it a pink a purple
shooting star is it a wild rose
primrose a morning glory

This abundance of possibility feels like a gift we can give during a time when many of us feel like we aren’t sure how or what to give. I found myself texting this poem to friends. When we can’t give each other answers or a clear timeline or even food that is safe from germs, we can give each other poems.

In one of the final poems of the collection, she reminds us even when we are not noticing, the world is there, a book waiting to be read. “I am always looking. I have tried to write it down. The ordinary world. When I did, and when I didn’t it was always still there.” (“Three Hours in a Rocking Chair Outside the Blue-Roofed Bunkhouse in the Wind,” 67). Even when most of the world feels far from ordinary, Cowles tells us we are still allowed to notice the remarkable artifacts of everyday life, a recipe, a basil plant, an old pet, a pinkish shirt, a reader named Brenda.

The collage, “[a whole page]” is a mess of birds flying in all possible directions, as if they are going to fly into one another; they are pointed toward so many possibilities. Cowles’ poetry slows us down and brings us to the familiar world, while also sweeping us along, allowing us to jump from Grecian islands to Ohio at a time when this travel jump seems more impossible than ever. This collection is a forward map, a celebration of movement between landscapes, a place to linger in simplicity, but also a spinning compass of surprise and wavering.

Caitlin Thornbrugh