A Portrait of My Father in Seven Maps

David Baker

Here I heard them. Here the big rocks. Here the place
with the tent. Did you cut enough willows for the lines, did
you hang them, are they treble are they single, we’ll need
the right hooks for the bait. We walked across water
so cold here it was burning. It was warm. When you
put your slippers on you have to watch your step, the grass
is wet the tiles are wet it’s pitched a little down.
So here hold the rod. When you don’t know where you are –

In Ptolemy’s Geometry the uncharted is not far away.
  Written in lampblack ink made from soot.
Where is she. Never far beyond Serica beyond
      Sinae nothing the island of Taprobane then nothing and
Aurea Cheronesus. Did you hear them first. Did you
      tie the boat to the willow to a stone. Inscribed on a roll
of papyrus cut from plants growing along the Nile Delta.
      Why have you chosen Ptolemy do you think –

Harry T. Kelsh’s patents (1949–55) for the machine
he sat at for a decade – my father working the arms, tracing
contours with mechanical pencils onto semi-transparent
paper – include photogrammetric plotting, gimbaled
diaphragms for optical projection, stereoscopic projection,
compensator designs for moving the floating mark of
the mapping table, instead of the lenses. Hence
the Kelsh machine. He sat me down. To trace a path –

who could find his way
                                          in the woods            in the dark

in rainstorm and snow-cover
                                          when he fell              the first time

how did they know it
                                          he said he was disoriented

who could tell which weed
                                          which root some manner of knot

starlings in the blue crab
                                          kingfish or jay on a low branch

of bobbing lindens
                                          where were you going but

I don’t remember that
                                          who waited the last night

quietly             still through the long night
                                          and holding her hand –

I am seven or eight. He’s about thirty. Keep still now.
Only cartography’s general reference map has

the hubris to present the world, you know, as it really is,
as if to say now and forever. Ground the heel to a stone,

rock the rod to get your reading when the hash-mark’s high.
Who carries me over water to our fire cicadas star-dots among

weeping willows scent of the older herds. Any tree could
be the axis mundi around which the universe turns –

Here I heard them singing. Marsh wrens. Her singing.
      Let’s chalk a path to the dining room. Let’s put
a piece of tape on the drain on the floor to the north-point. 
      This way we know where we are. His latitude expressed as
climata, the length of the longest day, not degrees of arc.
      It’s where we stood. Furrows in a cornfield.
What Ptolemy called chorography was simply a survey,
      it was not the world. He fell from a chair a ladder a tree –

It’s maybe four miles from East Circle to Adams Street Place. 

Place being where. Ptolemy’s purpose was not to imagine

the whole of natural existence but account for the known edge,

beyond which. He is eighty-eight. I am sixty. Beyond which

we can’t see. The arms the pencils the 3-D stereo-glasses

on a table stand. Limestone ledge there’s the back way down. 

Bring it up slow and check what we caught. Here hold on.

I know where we’re going. She heard. I know. We won’t be back –

David Baker is the author, most recently, of Whale Fall and Swift: New and Selected Poems. He edits the annual eco-poetry feature “Nature’s Nature” for The Kenyon Review and lives in Granville, Ohio.
Originally published:
November 1, 2017


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