Three Geographers


From the Archive


Martha Hollander’s poem “Three Geographers” appeared in our Winter 1992 issue. Her latest collection is The Game of Statues

Bending over the map on the floor
that unfolds like a rare carpet
we trace our trip with warm, stumbling fingers.
Sometimes we link them as our hands pass
over landmasses hanging in the blue, dreaming
of spicy meals, the coldness of a church
lovers in trains, and new words for cursing them.
Travellers begin by stirring from their beds
Like peninsulas roving from the shore.
They haul their viscera over the oceans,
packing themselves like bottled fruit, holding steady
under the protean gaze of foreigners.
Friends from birth, we will fight
and make up, change borders and dialects,
while the rock roots of earth hold us down.

In cartography you set out to solve the mystery
of roundness, twisting into view
the globe’s eternally hidden places
until the universe opening in your hands
is turned from bowl to book. You scan the text
to comprehend the shape of all we know,
but there is always touch beyond understanding.
Alone in his room, Vermeer’s geographer
looks up from the immense sheet before him.
He lets his compass hover uselessly
over this mess of paper and pattern (map and carpet)
that spells the earth. Behind him, glowing
dimly from the top of a high cabinet,
is the true globe he cannot see. He gazes
instead at the window where trees, crowds,
and shimmering canals afford him a glimpse
of the unruly life thronging inside
the exquisite outlines of the continent.
There is always touch beyond understanding.
There is no solution out the window,
only the precise, metallic light as it coats,
bit by bit, the vibrating orb of the world
this day in the Netherlands, 1669.