In his book of poems The Cartographer’s Ink Okla Elliott gives you what all the great artists always give you: the world.
I remember the first time I saw Orson Welles’s motion picture of Kafka’s The Trial. I stepped out of the theater after seeing the film, and I stepped into the film. The streets of Chicago were suddenly the maze-like, claustrophobic, black and white streets of Welles’s vision of Kafka’s imagination, populated by the lost and the losing and the threatening people of Kafka’s mind. This happened because Welles had given me in his film the world in a way I had never seen it. It was his world, and I was invited for a time to live in; and I did, and it was wonderful (and frightening) and taught me something about what my world sometimes is.
This is what Okla Elliott does.
He gives us his world—and lets us live in it for a while.
And what’s this world like?
It’s a world where a writer can try to use everything he’s read and experienced to make sense of a world.
I sometimes think that Okla Elliott is a throwback to the great existentialist writers of the 50s and 60s: Bellow, Mailer, Roth, and Oates. Like them, Elliott has turned to the great world shapers to understand what it is we’re doing here. He’s read Gilgamesh and Isaac Newton and Lenin and Kierkegaard and Heidegger and Buddha and Solzhenitsyn and Montaigne and all of the others who have shaped the world for Okla Elliott and for all of us finally.
Elliott’s poems are always in dialogue with the words and deeds of these great world shapers. And perhaps this is his great strength as a thinker and writer, this sense of dialogue. He takes what he has read and presses it against what he has lived, and then he wonders about how the words and understanding of the others and his words and understanding come together or don’t.
The central poem for me is Okla Elliott’s prose poem “Helpless.” It begins with what amounts to a linguistics lesson about the development of the Korean Hangul alphabet in the 15th century. He tells about Sejong the Great, the difficulty of adapting Chinese script for the masses, and the creation of something called the “Songs of Flying dragons” in a new Korean alphabet. All this erudition that Elliott wants to convey to you and me, his readers, however, suddenly runs up against the problems faced by the woman he wants to tell all of this to in the poem.
He says in the poem, “This is what I want to tell my friend when she says she has miscarried.”
At that point begins the deluge of real world problems that threatens to drown Elliott’s:
But her body is still preparing for a birth, her stomach swelling with useless uterine fluids. “And I have these strange allergies,” she says, “to bananas—and I fucking love bananas—and grass oils and green peppers.” There’s nothing to say and I know there’s nothing to say and she knows there’s nothing to say. But I tell her how the Hangul alphabet was invented and that there used to be politicians who wrote poems to teach their people the joys of literature. She cries and leans on me, and I don’t let myself pull away when the helpless swell of her stomach presses against me.
All of the interesting and transformative things to learn in the world are here, and they exist alongside a real human grief, but it’s a grief that is not overwhelming to him, he doesn’t “let myself pull away.” There’s something so conscious here, something so real about the human condition. Elliott captures our different identities, our different understandings of the world as they exist in dialogue with each other in such a way as to suggest a human complexity that finally only great writers give us. Elliott knows there is nothing to say, but he says it any way. Simultaneously, he’s pulled to what he has learned from history and philosophy, and he’s pulled toward this woman, and he’s conscious of that pull and conscious of trying to help even though he knows it’s hopeless.
In poem after poem, Elliott is testing what he has learned of the world from others with what he has learned of the world through his own experiences. And the former never overwhelms the latter, and the latter never overwhelms the former. It’s a dialogue that finally brings us to a greater knowledge of the great world shapers and a greater knowledge of Okla Elliott and ourselves.
As he experiences and re-creates the essential dialogue between what he has learned from others and what he has learned from himself, he describes a journey into the multiplicity of the self that is astonishing. We see this in all of the autobiographical poems in this book. Elliott tells us of his experiences as a young boy tracking a three-footed rabbit, interacting with his father and schizophrenic mother, his experiences as a young man listening to his former lover talk about her father’s cancer over the phone, his experiences as a student who finds himself in Germany and Russia and Korea. We assume all of these selves are Elliott, but he makes no obvious effort to link them in the narrative the poems construct. As a result, they participate in the greater dialogue that informs the book, world shapers and selves in an endless dialogic dance that spins the reader and spins the reader and spins the reader.
Elliott truly captures this in the poem “Pointless Movement.” Toward the end of the poem, he writes:
Our patterned selves, playing at being ourselves,
non-coextensive concepts—me and I, you and you.
The canopy of our consciousness streaked by jet-streams, often.
I checked my watch,
but the time kept changing.
Amorous spirits, we pursued our selves,
but sometimes we got lost, forgot us, became scattered puzzle pieces.
We stopped to populate our histories and futures,
suturing each to each, fertile with bizarre need.
As the reference to “scattered puzzle pieces” suggests in this poem, however, the dialogue, the attempt to make sense of our lives and the words and wills of others, is finally a playful act that finally may or may not be playful.
That is Elliott’s secret in this finely crafted and brilliant book. Like all the great poets, he tells us what we have to know in language that we have to read. They draw us in as Okla Elliott does, and they tell us they have some important secret, and we look and we realize that they are also saying they can’t tell us what this secret is.
Oka Elliott is an Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of the fiction collection From the Crooked Timber. His novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in early 2015 from Dark House Press.
John Guzlowski is published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Exquisite Corpse and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/