Yukon Dispatches: Cartographic Ekphrasis (Part 3 of 4)

[Editor’s Note: Yukon Dispatches is a four-part Assay project by Corinna Cook and will explore place-based writing, ekphrastic nonfiction, and research as she completes a year-long Fulbright. If you missed Part 1, click here! Click here for Part 2!]


Map One of Two

Here is one thing lyric essayists know: the eye is drawn to white space.

North America 1822 in Catherine McClellan's Part of the Land Part of the WaterTake this map, for instance. The entire region of the Yukon, where I presently live and write, is utterly blank. Yet as you can see, imperial-colonial-settlers had their cartographic fingers all up in the Americas when this map was made in 1822. So let the eye squint at all those southern waterways; let the eye rush along the dark spine of the Rockies from south to north and from north to south. And if the eye wishes, let the gaze settle upon the blank of uncharted lands in the north.

That blank space humbles me to my core because it represents a deep wealth, the wealth of sovereignty. Indigenous sovereignty that persisted, and persisted, and persisted, as imperial colonialism encroached, and encroached, and encroached. I think of this map as an object framing a moment of colonial knowledge, an object exposing the bounds of that knowledge, an object that visually invokes the peace and freedom of blank space as visual counterpoint to the swarming pen marks of colonial presence.

The Yukon Territory possesses in living consciousness a very, very recent history of profound privacy from the industrial west. Some generations have passed since that privacy was crushed, but the memory is like bedrock. It undergirds the present political moment here (land claims). Memory of life without settlers around is even, among certain elders I’ve met and more I haven’t, a chapter of their lived experience.

But with respect to the map: it’s not unusual—particularly for an essayist—to take an interest in the blank spaces, to gravitate toward the omissions, the unknowns. Nor is it unusual—particularly for an essayist—to excavate thick webs of connection, plunge into the densest of the fine print, stare unblinking at the finest lines of eyeball-bending detail. Both impulses serve essayists, and because most maps involve a play between densities and paucities of information, both approaches are available modes of looking at almost any map.

Does it change, though, to look not at a map, but into it?

Essayist Jericho Parms, I think, would say yes—though she’d be talking about works of art at the Met. I remember this distinction (looking at vs. looking into) from a craft talk Parms gave about a year and a half ago at the University of Missouri. “I’m not an art historian,” Parms said in her talk. “I look into an image.” This “looking into” is among my favorite definitions of “ekphrasis,” a practice in which a work of one medium dialogues with a work of another medium. “To dialogue with”; “to look into”—is to do ekphrasis.

When an essayist looks into an image, and when that image is a map, perhaps we can call the practice “cartographic ekphrasis,” a phrase my mouth enjoys more and more as I repeat its succession of hard-c sounds twice balanced with variations on a soft-ph. And my ear finds its syncopation delicious (1 2 3 4 1 2 3 – stress on the downbeat of the first word; stress on the upbeat of the second). Cartographic ekphrasis… i.e., a practice of doing Parms’ ekphrastic looking-into with map-as-art.

Ways in Which a Map is Like an Essay

Essayist Maggie Messitt points out that “maps help us search.” I agree. As a sea kayak expeditioner, as a backcountry skier, as a high alpine hiker, and as an often-solo backroads driver of multi-week, cross-continental road trips—I offer this restatement: a map is an image over which to pore and thus to dream. And I believe I am not alone in noting that a map is a document that consistently opens more questions than it answers.

Which, let’s be frank, makes a map sound like an essay.

For what is an essay? An essay asks a question, tries to answer it, and generally fails—gesturing at best toward partial-answers, arriving at unexpected insights, and setting off a small avalanche of further questions.

One more take on this notion of a textual/cartographic kinship, charted in tellings, possibilities, and failures: essayist W. Scott Olsen writes, “storytellers lay out the map of the past and the map of what is still possible. Storytellers and maps tell us what might happen. But sometimes they are wrong.”

A Scattered Inventory of Essays Sharing a Kinship With Maps

Map as Metaphor
Regarding the trend of the list-as-essay, Irish essayist Chris Arthur writes that “lists are a kind of verbal equivalent of route maps.” Part of his reason is etymological: the word “list” emerged from the Anglo-Saxon root “liste,” originally meaning “border. ” As Arthur sees it, if to list is to make borders, then to create a whole essay of a list is to create a whole map.

Text as Map
Missouri-based Osage essayist William Least Heat-Moon coined a relevant term, “deep mapping,” with his 1990 PrairyErth. The book blends ethnography and geology and poetics and archival fragments that, collectively, “deeply” map the Flint Hills of Kansas. And Irish essayist-artist Tim Robinson wrote a similarly multi-valent map of the Aran Islands, the coasts of which he charts in Pilgrimage, and the interiors of which he charts in Labyrinth (1986 Stone of Aran books). Bonus: Robinson also draws actual maps.

Map as Object of Archival or Aesthetic Study
Michigan-based essayist Beth Peterson wrote “Baffin Island” (Ocean State Review), which ponders a place called Ginnungagap which is, in Norse mythology, the chasm flanked by fire and ice from which the earth originated, and into which it will eventually disappear. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century cartographers pinpointed Ginnungagap in various arctic seas. Later the place-name was abstracted to mean “any mighty or chaotic chasm,” then simply used to mark “any hole or edge where the world of people didn’t perfectly fill the world of fire and ice.” Ginnungagap—or, the pervasive impulse to include the edge of the known, and the reach of the unknowable, in portrayals of the inhabited world.

Similarly invested in what a map notes but does not directly depict is Missouri-based Canadian essayist Julija Šukys’ piece, “There Be Monsters” (Passages North). This essay contemplates a map of Newtown, Lithuania, just beyond the margin of which lies a mass grave of murdered Jews. Of that unmapped grave, Šukys writes, “each day, I face the map and count the dead. I sing their names: Kaplan, Silberman, Grossman, Salanski. […] But this does nothing for the acrid taste in my mouth. The river still runs bloody.”

Cartographic ekphrasis? Certainly. Each essayist handles a map; each essayist sees more than what the mapmakers drew.

Poetics of Mapping / Text as Invocation
Sarah de Leeuw’s lyric essay about the missing and murdered girls and women—disproportionately Indigenous—of British Columbia’s Highway 16 has utterly captivated me in the question of what a map is and can be to the essay. De Leeuw’s essay uses text to make a map that superimposes story and place (like Heat-Moon and Robinson). And it speaks beyond actual maps’ silences (as do Peterson and Šukys).

De Leeuw’s essay is invested in possibly the most mundane of maps, a roadmap. The essay maps the liminal space of shoulder between highway and ditch, and the liminal space of ditch between highway and wilderness. Writes de Leeuw, “things decay and things are consumed in the ditches and crevices on the edge of Highway 16. There are meat and metal and flowers and there is rot and there is rejuvenation. …Soft shoulders and sharp shoulders, such are the shoulders of a sinewy highway, Highway 16.”

The narrative is uneventful but laced with possibility: thumbing for rides is a woman, but still teenaged, so a girl. Indigenous. Hitchhiking off her reserve and into town. The narrator picks her up: “pulling off onto the highway’s soft shoulder for a soft-shouldered young woman, standing there on the edge of the road on the edge of a town that seems to have no hard and fast boundaries. …from Main Street to railway track to cabins on lakes to glaciers that trail like tongues up the valleys and into sky.” And the narrator drops her off: “our hitchhiker crosses a borderland, walks over the highway’s soft shoulder and is lost from our sight. Enveloped by all that grows on the sides of roads.”

Shoulders. At once that liminal highway edge and the tenderly corporeal, the literally bodily shoulder. Body and roadside converge here, in the roadside mangling or outright disappearing of bodies trying to travel that road. And at the textual apex of that convergence, the essay bows into a roadmap, a roadmap that ends—check it out—in a list:

“Now think of that highway once again and hold your breath and contemplate all the soft shoulders you have touched. Close your eyes and feel the softest slope in the world, the slope at the top of a baby’s arm, curve up to neck. The landscape of your lover’s clavicle bone… But may you never dream of your daughter’s shoulders buckled and torn in the mud and silt of a ditch. May you never know what mothers know in Moricetown, in Kitwanga, in Burns Lake, Kitwankool, Terrace, Hazelton, Kitimat, Prince Rupert, or Kispiox…”

De Leeuw’s essay doesn’t mention an actual map; it describes no handling of map-object or map-image. But the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to call this essay cartographic ekphrasis as well, for roadmaps haunt this piece. And if de Leeuw is looking at a roadmap, she’s not looking at it—as Parms does with works of visual art at the Met, de Leeuw is looking into.

Map Two of Two

I began this reflection with a map on which the Yukon figures as a blank. I’ll end with the opposite, a map of rich shadows, one that uses detailed shading and lines and curves and words to create a dense portrait.

Coastal DetailThe Kohklux Map (1869) was drawn collaboratively, by memory, by three Tlingit leaders (two women whose names are about to surface in new historic scholarship, plus their husband, Kohklux), depicting each day of a four-hundred-mile journey from the village of Klukwan in (now Alaska’s) coastal rainforest—over the Coast Range—through the inland boreal forest—up to the confluence of (now the Yukon Territory’s) Pelly and Yukon Rivers. Geographers marvel at the map’s accuracy, anthropologists marvel at the wealth of its cultural meanings, historians marvel at its testament to an era of delicate negotiation, and Indigenous communities cherish it as an artifact of their heritage, and as a symbol of millennia-long coastal/inland relationships.

My questions are many. But here are two. Metaphysically, what does this map have to teach me (a coastal Alaskan), while I’m here (living and writing in the Yukon), now (in the beginning of the modern treaty era, in the heat of the anthropocene, in 2019’s strange early spring, in the twilight hours I spend writing alongside it)? It’s abstract, this inquiry; unweildy and perhaps dangerously shapeless. But the thinking-lineage of essayists above point me toward an anchor, a mental exercise that is a visual exercise that is a conversation with others who have traveled similarly. To work by following their lead, I’ll spend some time attempting to discern the appearance of the known and the unknown / the appearance of the seen and the unseen. I’ll ask: what do the unknown and unseen look like?

Essays touched on here and recommended for further reading:

Sarah de Leeuw, Where It Hurts (“Soft Shouldered” discussed here)

Jericho Parms, Lost Wax

Chris Arthur, On the Shoreline of Knowledge (“Lists” discussed here)

William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

Tim Robinson, The Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage and Labyrinth

  1. Scott Olsen, “The Love of Maps”

Beth Peterson, “Baffin Island”

Julija Šukys, “There Be Monsters”

Maggie Messitt, “North 20°54, West 156°14”



on the ridge above Fish Lake where now I go to think about caribou.JPGCorinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan currently based in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where Fulbright Canada supports her writing on art, ecology, and living with colonial history. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and is a recipient of the Ak State Council on the Arts and the Ak Arts and Culture Foundation’s 2018 Literary Award. Corinna’s essays appear here and there, including Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, the Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Ocean State Review.

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