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August 22nd, 2013


(Review) Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas



Originally published July 4, 2013


The core of Denis Wood’s message as a mapmaker in Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, is this: get rid of the roads, signage and practical markers of your typical map, and the mapmaker is impelled towards the modernist fissures that he would argue his particular medium missed out on. You get the fragmentary map; the impressionistic map; the lyric map; in his words, “we could write poems” (15).

His introductory essay cites Roland Barthes, Henry Chaucer, William Blake, John Cage, Lawrence Durrell, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen and others as models and sources of inspiration for his mapmaking work. He is a practitioner with a refreshing sense of the permeable nature of artistic boundaries, even if the iconoclastic tone of the essay suggests that he may possess an outsized sense of the singularity of his own vision. Wood is an essential contributor to the growing medium of ‘radical’ or ‘creative’ cartography; one that bridges elements of art, design, geography, activism and, in this case, literature.

The enthusiasm and belief that Wood has for this project, and the love and attention he has lavished upon this particular Raleigh, North Carolina neighbourhood for over two and a half decades, is infectious and inspiring. Tonally, it’s not hard to see how he could coax the platoons of design students and young cartographers necessary over the years to help him realize his vision. Like an ecstatic poet, he is prone to hyperbole, to litany, to wild associative leaps. Wood writes like the most inspiring kind of teacher; so much so that mid-way through the essay and under his spell, a hand-written map, with notes that his Aunt Marie made for him about the neighbourhood in earlier times, begins to take on the resonance of something out of epic verse:

2. Our second home—brick bungalow with steep steps—where I used to lock Jap in the closet

4. Little old country-style store where the men played checkers on the rail out front.

6. Our last home in Raleigh that was owned by the family in No. 7. They kept peacocks in a pen at No. 8. That we almost had in our back yard.

Wood has a tendency to mix metaphors throughout the essay. Terms like “poetics of cartography,” “narrative atlas,” and “the neighborhood as transformer” seem to be almost interchangeable with one another. This would be more of an issue if the maps themselves weren’t so successful in their passionate but acknowledgedly endless push to encapsulate the capital ‘E’ ‘everything’ about the concept of a neighbourhood—both their uniqueness and their universality.

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