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Writing in his 1844 essay ‘The Poet’, Emerson famously declared that ‘America is a poem in our eyes … its ample geography dazzles the imagination’ (224). This essay examines the most recent collections of two contemporary American poets – Jorie Graham's Swarm (2000) and Never (2002), and Lisa Jarnot's Ring of Fire (2003) – in order to investigate the implications on twenty-first century poetics of America's mythologization of itself, and the ground it occupies, as a poem. Its reading of these collections will show how American (poetic) mythologies are bound together with ideas of the geographic, and with the ground (both real and metaphoric) that America occupies. Furthermore, it will argue that the poetry of Jarnot and Graham continually reminds us that the mythological frames through which we read America are ones about the conquest of space, about taking on the land, about inhabiting the ground. If, that is, the idea of America as a poem is made manifest in myths of the frontier, of exceptionalism and manifest destiny, and of romantic individualism, then it is precisely such myths that are unpicked by Jarnot's and Graham's attention to their own status as American lyric poets.
Both Lisa Jarnot and Jorie Graham are poets whose writing exposes the cultural mechanics upon which Emerson's equation between the poetic and the national is sustained. As we shall see, their poetry attempts to get beneath what could be regarded as the surface dazzle proposed by Emerson's image of America's essentially poetic nature. Indeed, in their most recent work Jarnot and Graham expressly uncover the mythologizing power of America's ideology by calling for a renewed attention to the space – cultural, ideological, poetic – that America occupies. Both of these poets, then (though with quite different inflections), concertedly explore the idea of the American Poem itself as a peculiar icon of American power. As women poets, especially, they feel a particular pressure to expose what lies underneath such structures of power.
Maps, recent cultural geographers are fond of reminding us, are products of the specific ideology from which they are written. A proper reading of a map, one that attends to it as a cultural product, can discover – even deconstruct – the ideological and cultural assumptions upon which its act of mapping is grounded. For Stephen Daniels and Denis Cosgrove, the metaphor of the map provides a crucially important analytic tool for disentangling the ways in which systems of power may be seen to work within – and through – a text. They note that, under the influence of post-structuralist theory, it has become commonplace to think of a text as a “discursive ‘terrain’ across which ‘sites’ of power may be ‘mapped’.” Clearly, then, cartographic metaphors are useful in discussing literary texts in that they can accommodate an examination of both the overt and covert operations of those texts in their representations of the cultural and ideological landscape from which they are produced. Indeed, to map the world is to make that world readable, to make it familiar; but, like any text – or, in the particular case of this essay, Gary Snyder's poetic sequence Mountains and Rivers Without End (1996) – a map does more than simply describe a discursive terrain. Such descriptions also enact the conditions of their cultural production.