Review | Maps (Poetry)

G.T. Dempsey


John Freeman Maps (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017) ISBN: 9781556595233

This is billed as the debut collection of poetry by the author who is writer-in-residence at New York University.  Most of the poems have been published in a dozen different journals ranging from The New Yorkerand The Paris Reviewto the Buenos Aires Review.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I am not professionally qualified to judge these poems as poetry.  However, as expressions of, as the giving of voice to, lived experience, this collection hits home for me.  In the first instance, because so many of the poems speak of places I know from growing up in Sacramento, in the middle of the Central Valley of California.

The opening poem, ‘Rocklin,’ evokes a place but a half-hour drive or so from my city.  In the days before Interstates, the highway leading up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and to my grandmother’s house near Grass Valley (another place evoked in the following poem, ‘The Unknowing’) passed through Rocklin. It was a small town, then, with perhaps a couple of thousand inhabitants, and the western entrance was marked by huge boulders, the size of houses.  It was a notorious speed-trap.  But regular drivers knew to slow well before the bend in the highway which brought you the first sight of the massive boulders.  But that was then.  Now is evoked in this poem.  Now Rocklin is no longer a settled small town but an annexed part of the greater city. All is expanding, all is in a constant state of building (‘the newly edgeless city’):

     I saw it being built in the bowl

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of our foothills, trees disappearing

month after month replaced by smooth roads,

empty schools, chopped-up lots and cul-de-sacs,

unfinished houses, sound berms curving

roads into long cement smiles.  We’d

drive there in our parents’ car….

‘The Unknowing’ is written of the author’s grandfather and father but could have been written of my own grandmother and her family.  My grandmother, at age 16, was thrown out of bed by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and was then taken out of secretarial school by her father and brought back to their orchard farm in the Central Valley; much later, her daughter, my mother, after she was married, lived in Sacramento.

     My grandfather was born after the earthquake and


Summers he picked prunes in the valley….


A child among the fragrant groves

of Sacramento imported to give a desert

town some shade.  Given a ’57 Chevy

at sixteen….

Later on, the poem evokes swim clubs and the Top-40 hits on a clock-radio and, in memory-seared details, the routines of the delivery boys of the morning newspaper.  A lived experience common to generations of us American city kids, but now firmly in the past.  This could be my family’s history.

There are a multitude of places evoked in these poems.  Oslo, London, Beirut, Richmond, New York, San Francisco, many more.  Here, more author bio would have been helpful with so much geography covered by these elliptically-phrased poems.  Clearly, Freeman has been around the global block. But, always, he returns to our Central Valley (as in ‘Witness This’):

     ….  So

we carved our way down interstates, crammed into a car…

…inscribing our childhoods onto the Central Valley,

its mean brown flats, the irrigation canals….

This slim book reminds us that maps are not just lines and images on a surface – on paper or a globe – they are also emotional passages into the remembering and the meaning of our lives.

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.