A Place to Stand

The first thing I noticed when starting to read David Wagoner’s new book Traveling Light is that some of my favorite poems have been dropped from the collection. Wagoner’s first book was titled A Place to Stand, and the title poem has long been one of my favorite poems.

Ironically, the poem explores the loss of familiar “objects” from the past and its effect on us. Since it was the title poem from his first collection, I was a little surprised it didn’t appear in “collected and new poems.” Has David finally found his “place to stand” and no longer worries about it? Or, has he given up all hope of ever finding such a place?

A Place to Stand

On ancient maps, they stood,
Explorers, cartographers-
Between the dew-lapped god
Of the wind with an icy beard
And the arrow etched at north-
And panicked among the stars,
And tried the sun, and heard
The kraken plunging south.

They said, "Where are we now?"
But whirlpools turned the sea,
Swallowed and uttered land,
And flames cracked at the bow.
What solid geometry
Could guide their astrolabe?
Which latitude of the mind
Could cast them on the web?

They watched, on every shore,
Gargoyle and griffon rise,
Clawing the parchment air,
Scaling the dark for miles;
Saw the whole ocean poured
Like separate waterfalls
Down the corners of the world,
The corners of their eyes.

We ask, "Where are those ships?"
Keeled over on a chart.
"What lies around us, since
They foundered on old maps?"
The whirling continents,
The sky seen through a hole,
The stars flashing apart—
What master calls them real?

This always seemed to me a perfect poem to begin a volume of poems. Poems, like all literature, at their best serve as a semantic map of our world. Our very sense of reality is determined by our maps of the external world.

What better way, then, to challenge our view of reality than to show how ancient maps portrayed the world. Although the maps were certainly more romantic than modern maps, few of us today expect to find a “kraken” plunging in the oceans. What kind of man could sail forth with such maps? How miraculous that explorers dared cross the Atlantic with maps that showed a flat world with water running off the edges.

Do we dare to doubt that our own maps of our world, particularly those verbal maps we use to decide “right” or “wrong,” “good or bad,” will one day seem as “fanciful” as the ancient maps that confront us in this poem?

Even if Wagoner has found his final standing place and no longer has a need for this poem, I often feel the ground shake under my feet and I still find myself wondering if what I’ve believed for years is really true. And losing “old friends” does little to reassure me of my footing.

Truly, I have not yet found a place to stand.