Of Cartography

Esther G. Belin, Of Cartography
Publisher: The University of Arizona Press
2017, 88, paperback, $17

my tongue is a fire
today I am the water
yesterday I was wood

SO BEGINS THE transformative and dynamic Of Cartography—the latest collection of poems from Diné poet Esther G. Belin.  While the poems in this collection navigate the great spaces of both personal and political conversations, the work is always moving with an energy even the poet struggles to contain, evident in the formal boundaries pushed and at times, exceeded by these poems.  One poem in the introductory section (“bundles are bundling”), “assignment 39,” instructs,

  1. analyze the separation
  2. write a poem about the language not spoken
  3. rearrange the diagram in symbolic order

Accompanying these directions is a large graph with two axis in which X’s have been arranged in groups with arrows indicating their movement and direction.  The picture resembles an elaborate football play, or secret, shorthand military plans in its mystery coupled with a sense of precise organization.  Such is the mind of Belin in Of Cartography—honest about what it cannot yet know, open to the wonder that accompanies this extraordinary journey, and relentless in its pursuit for the answers it seeks.  Through every page, Belin pushes forward as she navigates her own identity through form, language, and the forces of both political, natural, and cultural entities that shape and move her.

Of Cartography is a text in four sections titled east, west, south, and north, in that order.  These directions serve the text on several levels, the most general being an effort on the poet’s part to center herself in the search for her own identity through her American present and Navajo ancestry.  In short, she is looking for a way home on a map that she isn’t sure how to read (not in the first poems, at least).  As she poses questions, more answers make themselves known to her, and beget more questions still.  On a deeper, psycho-cultural level, these directions represent the four sacred mountains with which the Navajo define their territory, adding a layer of vital lineage and an attempt to create a more complete view of the self through a simultaneous past/present perspective.

Beginning in the east—the source of each day’s first light and a most appropriate place to illuminate the first steps of this journey—Belin places herself on the map that is the backdrop of each poem in Of Cartography.  Some of the work contains the poetic coordinates necessary to find her, and to follow her, like in her elaboration on “EAST”:

easterly, as ginger
Poplar, as wood
Juniper seeds, re-plamted
bonfires, best —
with ocean waves, nearby

(hint: a place I call home)

In this sense, the poem acts as a clue not necessarily of where to begin, but where to go next.  By mapping out each of the four areas surrounding her ancestors’ sacred territory, Belin can begin to write a revised history for herself that she filters through the lens of the present self looking back in an effort to move forward.

If the east is readily recognized as a place of beginning, ever the cradle of the sun, then the poem “Before We Ever Begin” is appropriately placed in this section.  In it, Belin appears to outline the mission of this project:

to retrace
the footprints of our past
the soles of our feet
walking toward the dark north
forward into unknown
extracting our past from this recipe
adding new ingredients to bless our future

So the past, then, becomes a formula to which new perspectives can be added to create a whole future for Belin, and her present in this text is a staging area for revitalization and reinvention.

As Belin moves through each section of Of Cartography, the circle around a place in which she can see herself—a place she might call home—grows smaller and therefore her language and subjects grow more specific.  Two sections layer in the “WEST” section of the collection; Belin presents readers with a poem titled, “I keep my language in my back pocket like a special handkerchief that I only display when I want to show my manners in a respectful way.”  She primes readers for duality and specificity from the title of a poem that begins with a clearer picture of the map she slowly unfolds.  Despite this clarity, the poem still thirsts for more understanding, more language, and more taxonomy (“my tongue is a fire / today I am the water”).  Belin writes, “It is always so nice / to hear my language, even if / I don’t fully understand it.” She appears less concerned with breaking boundaries in every poem or on every page, rather, she is honest about the limits of her understanding and asks the poems to see those limits and acknowledge them.  The most delightful moments occur in smaller spaces, where enlightenment shines through the fog of the past through which Belin sifts in these works.

The first two poems in “WEST” most effectively parse out the divisions of identity Belin experiences, and their geographic location places her in Los Angeles—the city to which her parents were relocated from their Navajo homeland.  The poems appear as responses to the set of poetic coordinates that open the section, “my dreams tilt toward the / west, yet my prayers are drilled deep, / tethered to my home.” While Belin’s “I keep my language…” describes her reverence for her Navajo language, her poem “Bedazzled” attempts to bring a past, once distant, into her present.  Belin’s speaker asks, perhaps rhetorically, “I could give LA a vision / but does it want one?.” And yet, one comes to believe that she actually wants an answer, and feels the pain in the possibility of her not receiving it.

Of Cartography is a delightfully wild and deeply thoughtful collection; Belin’s is a crucial, contemporary voice, mining, discovering, and releasing understanding at the intersection of past and future—where the cycle completes itself.  Her discussion of the shaping of her own psychology is fascinating, and Belin shows herself open to wonder at every turn.  In Of Cartography, Belin provides a map to the sort of home most difficult to find, and each of her poems, trailheads woven through generations, mountains, cities, bodies, demonstrate the restless hunger for another story.

— Bobby Bolt

Esther G. Belin is among the myriad of indigenous peoples on the planet to survive in urbanized areas.  She is a graduate from the following institutions: UC Berkeley, IAIA, Antioch University.  She considers the following locations her homeland: LA, Durango, Diné bike’yah.  Her writing and art grows from and is an offering to the collective humanity, bila’ ashdla’ii.