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Love Is A Map I Must Not Set On Fire is and is not a poetry collection. It may or may not be a commentary on September 11 and the wars that followed. What it might be best described as is an extended narrative explaining how we as humans survive in a politicized world fraught with division and conflict.
Love interweaves the story of the fluctuating relationship between the speaker and her lover, Denira, with their home landscape, Seattle, as well as the September 11 attacks and the state of war created by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is a risky move by Carol Guess to write more than a simple response to these events; the choice to do so raises age-old questions of the appropriation of tragedy and who has the right to write it. Two things save this subject matter from becoming sentimental or overly political: the authenticity of emotion and the integration of this recent history with the troubled love story of the speaker and Denira, whose relationship is nearly as turbulent as the times in which they live.
Denira and the speaker are lovers much like any other pair and yet face many of the conflicts specific to gay and lesbian couples even today. One is too afraid to be open: “Denira sends out invitations. She’s returning to the closet and wants everyone to know,” which her partner condemns as wanting “to hide and have her cake, too. Denira wants me to do the hard work for her” (13). There is also the broader lack of acceptance of their relationship: “We’re a couple, just like any other. Nothing special. Absolutely normal.//And aren’t we deserving to be so—//And aren’t we upstanding, to be so—“ (12). They are at once challenging and conforming to heteronormative codes of conduct, which is one of a multitude of conflicts never fully resolved in the book.
The political content of these pieces is blunt and unapologetic, at least for itself. Guess indicts the leadership for its actions and the nation for its passive contribution: ignorance. The vehemence jumps off the page in lines such as “Dubya’s power borrowed/from his father’s hour/Denira, contemplating Marx/whether the U.S. is alienated/from the grief it produced” (27). And yet, there are clear mea culpas on behalf of the nation, from the brief elegizing of “an Arab cab driver strangled in Assumption City” (23) and the plea for redemption: “Forgive me for destroying your country/…Forgive me for making/a thousand versions of everything” (27). In a metapoetic move, writing becomes acknowledged catharsis, “If I can’t make art of my great grief—“ the thought remains unfinished, because the prospect is unimaginable. After all, Guess writes, “all I know of courage/is pressing my pen/to these scattered sheets” (26).
What results from pressing pen to paper reveals a different sort of tension with literary tradition. Guess, a poet and prose writer, creates in this volume a sort of hybridized form that resists many of the traditional structures of poetry, eschewing titles and, often, stanzas. Many of the pieces that are lineated as poems use very short lines and contain minimal punctuation. By contrast, whole pages read as prose—not even prose poems, but as straight prose. The overall effect, however, is the most subtle statement of the book: letting the narrative develop in the way it, not the author, wants to develop.
More powerful than these acts of literary resistance, though, are the insights offered into the implications that life and conflict hold for the individual. One of the loveliest sequences in the book is the quintet of love lyrics spanning pages 16-20, in which Guess makes an announced “detour” from the history of the speaker and Denira to contemplate love and loss for the speaker alone. Though not entirely extricable from Denira, these poems represent the vulnerability that the speaker subordinates to her lover throughout much of the narrative. “I live in the shadow of a breathing volcano in a city with seven days of sunshine a year” refers to more than life in Seattle, especially when followed with the admission that “I can speak of you now to anyone because I’ve stopped wanting anything like what I once wanted from you” (17). Likewise, the meditation on jealousy on page 34 reminds us that community and world crises are easily forgotten in the face of personal tragedy.
And perhaps that is Guess’ most important statement in this collection: to not let love, of any sort, for any one, go up in flames.