A World Without Maps by Jane Simpson.
Brisbane: Interactive Press (2016).
RRP: $27. Pb, 61pp.
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
Christchurch writer, Jane Simpson, has previously published a poetry chapbook, Candlewick Kelp (2002), but A World Without Maps is her first full collection. In it, she draws upon her experience teaching English in a desert school in the United Arab Emirates, and then upon personal experiences of family and loss, and the disruptions of the Christchurch earthquakes. Through these inner and outer territories, she navigates using acute attention to detail.
In the first of three sections, ‘Desert Logic’, the uncharted landscape is cultural, different ways of thinking that make nonsense of the idea that Google can measure the world.
From “A world without maps”:
… inaccessible to search engines,
Al Sheyam Girls’ School lives
mapped by dreams … (p 3).
Throughout these poems there are marvellous, sharply drawn characters: the taciturn taxi driver in “self-censoring” (p 3), and the gum-chewing, rule-breaking student in “English only please” (p 8). Much is hidden, inscrutable behind designer shades, or outer garments that are respectable, anonymous, but cover clothes rich with individuality. These images are simple, glimpsed, and the more telling for that.
However, the image that held the most power for me, is one that is presented in detail in the poem “hair tossing” and in the arresting black and white photo on the cover. A line of young Emirati women perform the traditional Khaliji dance at a cultural festival. One hand lifts to cover the face while the wind whips each woman’s long black hair into the air. To my western eyes (without a map) it’s an image of subjugation combined with an elemental, irrepressible female power. The poem describes the dance:
on this day girls break
the rules or obey some
hidden law …
… girls unspring buns
let tresses fall
move as one
flies from side to side
as if in defiance … (p 18).
Some hidden law. The poet describes with careful simplicity and little attempt to interpret. It’s as if she is a small figure, standing at an outside edge, and the reader stands there with her. It feels like the right place to be.
In the second section, ‘The sky between the leaves’, the poems explore a New Zealand life, and different sorts of pathlessness. In “Planting Lemonwoods in Tui St”, suburban plans collapse into something wilder:
… the paper road
never built – now regenerating forest
where fence posts have rotted
and wires twist like roots … (p 29).
Here too, Jane Simpson shows her skill in choosing detail to delineate character. In “The Prof’s wife” a woman strives to conform to the demands of a social position, and neglects the possibilities of a more creative life:
Her armoury was wood and steel, clanking
in tired drawers, full of crumbs …
… Knives were kept separate, her husband’s to carve
at Sunday lunch. The family seated and spotless after Mass…
.. brushes lay undisturbed in their box… (p 30).
The poems become increasingly personal. Several honour the poet’s mother and the pain here is often raw with the immediacy of bereavement:
… Why am I so hungry?
I’m burying my mother tomorrow. (“Tomorrow” p 42).
Poems in the third section ‘Like fantails in the forest’ step away from the domestic into a wider world. There is protest at the impact Pacific nuclear testing has had on the unborn:
babies in the basket
of their womb … (“Catch” p 51).
The final poems describe not only a lack of maps, but of physical streets. The Christchurch earthquakes, and the loss of familiar urban territory and of dependable services such as clean water make powerful metaphors. There is a beautiful artistry here in the way that Simpson pulls together threads from previous poems to give perspective. She circles back to the desert communities and their daily, difficult work of finding water.
… Bedouin set up ropes
men and women draw
and sing together
buckets slosh … (“After the earthquake” p 56).
And here, the poems suggest a way to balance amid all this unsteadiness, a coming together for water, and more. The last stanza of the last poem “Behind the cordon, Cashel Mall”:
the city’s old body has gone
young couples gently
touch, peace and justice
rise, kiss (p 58).
A World Without Maps is a collection of poems that are honest, gentle and full of surprises in the sharpness and effectiveness of their detail. Jane Simpson and Interactive Press have interwoven the global and the personal in a way that enriches each individual poem, and creates a whole that is a compassionate exploration of what it is to be human.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.