Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World
Kathryn Cowles’s Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World is a collection that lingers in memory and place, in the unsettled distance between reality and its transcriptions.
“I take seven photographs turning / in a circle, a panorama, / but how will I place them hanging / on a wall back home? Something already slipping,” Cowles writes. These poems surround a central question: how much of a moment is captured by the mechanisms we use to describe it? How much of the shore, the birds, the feeling? In pursuit of an answer, Cowles leads readers through a sequence of distinct landscapes (islands, plains, mountains, oceans) with both traditional lyricism and the playful refrains of a speaker fixated on the dilemma of representation. “Holy photograph. Holy actual world. Equal sign equal sign equal sign.”
Cowles’s poems both puzzle over and embrace the valley between literature and lived experience. Along the way, her language is light but recursive, rotating around beloved places: a new house, a garden, a seemingly endless plane ride, a battery-operated spit of lamb, a photograph of a battery-operated spit of lamb, dogs, Sue, Ohio. This collection defamiliarizes and refamiliarizes the “actual world,” while navigating toward the clear and substantial stuff of living.
Arresting on both visual and textual levels, Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World is executed with the utmost intelligence, humility, and tenderness.
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Praise and Prizes
“[T]he innovative latest from Cowles uses text and image to explore the strangeness inherent in everyday experience. Cowles’s collages do not serve as mere illustrations, but rather complicate, call into question, and layer interpretations onto the poems proper. Her approach to defamiliarizing mundane tasks ('Every morning we open the curtains./ Every evening we sit on the porch') is multifaceted and intriguing.”
“[Cowles] deftly shows that as we struggle to transform into language what we see and hear and feel, the results are inevitably incomplete; there’s a gap between what we want to say and what we actually manage . . . An intriguing, risk-taking work, with special appeal for millennials and crossover readers.”
“The poems themselves are hatching modalities that bounce between the matter of language and the matter of the real world. Cowles’ collection is slippery, elusive, but also in essence, inexpressibly familiar.”
“Where are you? Where do you think you are? How do you know? Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World will quite possibly change your mind, or that part of your mind that thinks it knows, or relies on anything in print. Come take a journey from an island in Greece—by boat and plane and step—to Ohio, only to walk out into a field of wildflowers you thought you knew, but didn’t. The luckiest readers will wind up in a rocking chair on a porch, seeing the world as if for the first time.”
“Kathryn Cowles is an especially adroit transcriber of our particularly fragile and unstable moment of being human; she is in a continual process of half-describing and half-creating a world she can love.”
“Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World by Kathryn Cowles is a vibrant installation in experimental American poetics that emphasizes the strength and potential of hybridity between environmental sounds, language, and the visual. This potent interaction creates new, handsomely bizarre, and excitingly new feats for poetry. As readers, we are brought to new proximities in these poems not just with the exterior mappings of our surroundings, but with our very own interior. I trust what the speaker can and cannot say in these poems—what is presented through image and through the sound of birds. Cowles has shown us a new kind of map, and I can’t stop listening to it.”
“As a map departs from its origins, so equally do those origins multiply beyond the single map. Cowles' is a dynamic topography, and she positions herself as a distinct (and distinguishing) perspective upon prolific surfaces.”
“Cowles’ attention to image and visual media . . . throughout Maps and Transcripts has the quality of a pilgrim before a relic. Some relics are objects with an intrinsic sacredness within a faith tradition, but some objects we make holy because of our attention. Both kinds of relics have the ability to transform our attention, and that seems to me what Maps and Transcripts offers its reader—an imaginative transformation, an attention to the real.”
“The need to catalog, to document, and to mourn are all active forces in Cowles’s poems, which seek to both stay within and potentially alter a moment . . . Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World is a work grappling with the representational and the real and the thin boundaries between them.”
“Kathryn Cowles's Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World is an exercise in naming & renaming, a photographic offering, a breathless conversation, a friend showing the reader—through image and through text—humanity's fragmented, partial relationship to our surroundings. Mastery permeates this book, most notably in the form of a voice that balances conversational tenderness with metaphysical explorations of transliteration, transubstantiation, and the function of place in memory . . . Maps and Transcripts reads like a revolutionary take—one against description, and towards approximation of the actual.”
“The reader pivots between pieces that purport to describe the world—and then pretend to explain how descriptions work—but the poet’s goal isn’t to move us toward comprehension. She wants to situate us, at last, 'here'—gazing at the map of the poem.”
“Using small boxes of text and labeled photographs, Cowles gives the reader a series of visual and textual cues to follow through her collection–photos become maps of language, snapshots of language capture interior and exterior landscapes, where decay unsettles beauty, and musicality troubles static meaning, like waves lapping at the shore. A kind of ode to transience and the limits of representational forms that points to doors and windows which open those very limits, in which she works so beautifully.”
“The careful measure of this world against all other versions, measured by birds, by boats, by the sea . . . Kathryn Cowles explores the ways that acute, engaged attention is, in itself, a unit of measure, delivering us up to a world the size of a world. She covers a lot of territory, and always with an intimacy that makes us present, in her images and in her imaginary, both always mapping the world as a way of participating it in more closely—a stunning text that sweeps the reader along on its travels.”
“Kathryn Cowles’s new book is an extraordinary exploration of the heart of human existence. Interrogating our relationship to place, the environment, religion, history, memory, love, and more, she employs a myriad of forms and approaches. The language here is a symphonic arc at once dissonant and harmonic, experimental and narrative, a perfect blend of opposites seeking always to open a road, a liminal zipper into possibility. Part alchemical formula, part cartographer’s process, part prophecy, part fairy tale, Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World weaves spell after spell, poems and images spooling out as coordinates, compass points, leading into a lyric, playful but deep probing of what might be recovered and turned to a redemptive purpose."
“Kathryn Cowles's beautiful new work is threaded with sites of everyday transformation—where a landscape becomes an image or a bird song becomes a sequence of hyphenated phonemes or a flash of consciousness becomes a poem. In text and image, Cowles shows us how to see and hear through the interstitial spaces we've been so thoroughly trained to overlook. Tracking an intimate call-and-response between the poet and her surroundings, these poems reveal a practice of tender attention as generous and fully alive as the worlds they map.”