The Discoveries of Geography
The Discoveries of Geography - Andrew Motion
Share PoemCopy to clipboardCopied
I wrote this poem after reading a book by a guy called Jerry Brotton called 'A History of the World in 12 Maps', which is as the title implies a book about the history of cartography and it made me think various things about map making and also of course about exploration, the diaspora and other related things. You have to imagine that it's narrated by somebody who's lived an immensely long time, from the very earliest days of exploration before any kind of map existed, through to now and Google.
The Discoveries of Geography
If only the stories were not so tempting –
but from day one I started to embroider,
and in no time was suggesting a country
far to the North,
where fish are as large as dragons,
and even minor administrators
eat off gold plates
and sleep on gold beds.
This is why I have packed in my birch canoe
made of feathers
of more than 1000 different species of bird.
So that when I have finally crossed the Ocean
I will have a ceremonial costume
to impress in my encounter with the Great Khan.
We have an excellent long boat with outriggers
and therefore travel dozens of miles in a day.
Furthermore, and speaking as a navigator,
I can predict every fickleness of weather
and also the change in direction of currents,
sometime dipping my elbow into the water
and sometimes my scrotum
to feel the slightest change in temperature.
These are the reasons
I shall be considered a saviour by my people
and die in peace.
In my own mind I am a simple man
who threw his spear at the stars
and landed there himself.
I now have in my possession a map:
two handfuls of mud
scraped from the bank of our sacred river,
flattened into a tablet,
then pierced with the blunt point of my compass
while I spun the other, sharper leg
to produce the edge of the world as I knew it,
the salt sea on which I am perfectly at home.
In this way I look down on myself.
I think: I am here.
Astonishing how many horizons are open to me:
at one time mountainous heaps of smashed slate,
at others a vast delta of green and crimson light.
And every day a different shore shore-line ripples past
bearing its cargo of white sand and dark palms.
Very beguiling they appear, but all encumbered.
All spoiled by the tantrums of their local gods.
Out here there are storms too,
but in the religion I have now devised for myself
I am convinced
the shaping hands have pulled away from us at last,
so the earth hangs with no support at the centre of –
That is the question I have in mind to answer.
You might suppose better charts would help me,
but in spite of their much greater accuracy
in terms of coastlines and interiors,
and the intricate detail
guaranteed by developments in printing,
not to mention the understanding of perspective,
empires still lie about their extent and stability.
These are the simple deceptions.
as I continue North to my final encounter,
and wave crests flickering my face grow colder,
and daylight a more persistently dull dove-grey,
is how to manage my desire to live in the present
for all eternity,
as though I had never left my home.
It transpires the last part of my journey
requires me to abandon everything I once knew,
even the gorgeous costume
made of feathers form more than 100 species of bird.
No matter, though.
It is delicious among the constellations,
as the planets begin to display their gas clouds
and the beautiful nebulae their first attempts at stars.
When I look over my shoulder
to see my own blue eye staring back at me,
I realise before I disappear
I still accept what it means to be lost.
from Peace Talks (Faber, 2015), Andrew Motion 2015, used by permission of the author c/o The Wylie Agency (UK) Ltd