Mapping the Stars


Mapping The Stars

-Book Reviewed by Matthew Falk

If Mark Strand hadn’t already used the title, Rachel Wooley’s new collection, Mapping the Stars could have also been called “Reasons for Moving.” These poems are driven by the tension between the future and the past, between the desire to connect with others and the desire to flee. “The recurring dream,” one poem explains, is “to slip / into someone else’s life.” But of course, Wooley is aware that’s impossible. Traveling only pushes us deeper into our own lives, constantly reminding us of the things we’ve tried to leave behind.

On the book’s cover, a colorful old-world cityscape, painted by the author, invites readers to imagine strolling through quaint narrow streets or loitering in a café or pub. Now notice what’s missing: in Wooley’s picture there are no streets, no people, no place for the observer to rest. Viewers sense that they are passing through—or, more precisely, passing over, looking down from above, en route to the endless night sky that beckons us ever onward. We might like to touch down and stay a while, but the poet has other plans.

The book begins in medias res. We first meet our poet/tour guide “In an Airplane, Suspended” over Belgium. Subsequently, we accompany her to France, Ireland, even outer space. In between we stifle and chafe in various American airports and urban centers, awaiting the next opportunity to take again to the open air: “The clutter of home overwhelms…. // Each moment here means / less.”

The speaker of “Nine Types of Loneliness” informs us that the light of a dying star “stretches / into the universe / reaching blindly for contact.” Is she a dying star? Are we dying stars? Is our blind stretching and reaching the reason we need that map promised by the book’s title? The poem doesn’t answer these questions, of course, but it does tell us that another type of loneliness is: “A photograph in which the subject / will always look away.”

So it goes: Always reaching for contact, always looking away.

Is our blindness, then, somehow willful or at least foreseeable? Are we unable to take in what’s in front of us, to look at one another, because we are too busy looking elsewhere—into the past and future?

It’s worth noticing that this same photo, or a very similar one, has already appeared in an earlier poem, “Circumstantial Detourists”: “I take only / a single picture of you; in it, you’ve turned / away.” That particular poem ends with the speaker standing on a hilltop in Derry, “survey[ing] / the possibilities on either side.” The reticence to choose a side, to remain aloof and above it all, as if to preserve the possibility of a future choice  indefinitely, is typical of Wooley’s speakers.

But who is it, exactly, who has turned away, and from whom? The “you” addressed in these poems is as various and shifting as the landscapes over which the poet roams. Sometimes it’s a boy who may or may not be waiting for her at home (wherever “home” might turn out to be). Sometimes it’s a fellow traveler. Occasionally, it’s just you—yes, you. But often it’s an aspect of the poet herself, as in “Last Day of a Month in Armagh,” where the speaker tells herself: “Yet you are the mystery / revealed. Can you tell? / The American, the American….”

The effortlessness with which Wooley moves between and among these various second-person pronoun referents is admirable and represents, once again, the creative tension at the heart of these poems. As a line in “Blending Geographies” would have it: “You forget the distance / between separate lives, transpose the two”—an echo of the same recurring dream described elsewhere.

Eventually, if we let her, this poet will train us to be less ashamed of our own voyeuristic curiosity. She has, after all, invited us here to eavesdrop on her dialogues. Let’s take it all in. Let’s stop looking away.


Postscript: An old Chinese phrase, often translated as “free and easy wandering,” kept coming to mind as I was writing this review. Among other things, it’s the title of a chapter of a text attributed to the fourth century BCE philosopher Chuang Tzu. In American parlance, I suppose it’s roughly equivalent to some cheesy platitude like, “The journey is its own destination.” And although I’m not sure it’s such an apt reference to use in connection with Mapping the Stars—Wooley’s wanderings are neither easy nor entirely free—I thought I’d leave it here for you on my way out.

Chuang Tzu writes (in Burton Watson’s translation):

In the Midwestern darkness, there lives a big fish. She changes and becomes a bird, rises up and flies off for the Southern darkness.

The cicada and the little dove laugh at her, saying, ‘When we make a great effort, we can fly as far as that sapwood tree. Where does she think she’s going?’

And in the barren North, there is a Great Lake. It is home to a great bird whose wings fill the sky like clouds.

The quail laughs at her, saying, ‘Watch me! I can make a great leap and fly for ten or even twelve yards! Where does she think she’s going?’

“Could discoveries be made / by standing still?” asks the speaker of “Last Day of a Month in Armagh.” Once again, no answer is forthcoming. “Patience / is not your virtue; it’s a viewless plain / of nothing but grass waiting / for the sun….”

-Matthew Falk

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