Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Thursday in Lent I

Maps Holly Ordway

Antique maps, with curlicues of ink
As borders, framing what we know, like pages
From a book of traveler’s tales: look,
Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.
No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state
Traced out in colour-coded numbered highways,
A web of roads with labeled city dots
Punctuating the route and its slow stories.
Now GPS puts me right at the centre,
A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.
Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself. I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

Holly Ordway’s contemporary sonnet brings us back from the seventeenth century to our own fast-moving, wi-fi, online times, and calls us sharply to look up  from our screens and be more truly oriented. …

This beautiful blank sonnet takes us on a journey through history, embodied in three maps, and then brings us abruptly to ourselves in the present, with an implicit word of challenge. We begin with the antique maps, with their ‘curlicues of ink’, and little drawings of ships, evocative of a bygone era, a different view of the world, perhaps going back to a time when the world was thought to be the centre of all things, or even to be flat, with the seas pouring off its edges. Then she brings us into the twentieth century with the road maps  that most of us can remember, ’no-nonsense maps from from family trips’, quietly evoking the sense of shared conversation and storytelling in the family car and the way the map itself is like a keeper or an index of memories: ‘with labeled city-dots punctuating the route and its slow stories’.

Then comes the ‘volta’, or the ‘turn’. There is a strong tradition in the making of sonnets to see the transition from the first eight lines (the octet) to the final six (the sextet) as a point of transition, offering a turn in the meaning, tone or development of the poem. The early Italian pioneers of the sonnet form called this the ‘volta’, and some of the most famous sonnet rhyme schemes, such as the Petrarchan form, are designed to emphasize this moment of turning, which is often indicated by a shift in the writer’s perspective. So at her ‘volta’, Ordway shifts from the past to the present tense, announced with the opening word ’Now’, and in every sense introduces a profound shift of perspective. Suddenly we have come out of the world of maps and into the twenty-first- century world of satnav! Even though many centuries may have separated the ‘antique maps, with curlicues of ink’ from the ’no-nonsense’ road maps, they still have more in common with each other and belong, as it were, to the same era, in comparison with the new world in which every map is reconfigured to suit the perspective of its user:

Now GPS puts me right at the centre,
A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.

The term ‘Ptolemaic shift’ involves a wonderful paradox. We are familiar with the great ‘paradigm shift’ that occurs when we moved from the ‘Ptolemaic’ view of the universe, with the earth at the centre and the sun and stars moving around it in great crystalline spheres, to the ‘Copernican’ view of the universe with the sun at the centre and the earth and other planets orbiting around: this is referred to as the Copernican revolution or Copernican shift. But here Ordway is suggesting that ironically the invention of hi-tech satnav has resulted instead in a Ptolemaic shift, in which we have put ourselves back in the centre of all the maps!
There is also a telling wordplay in her use of the word ‘pinned:

Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself.

Users of handheld GPS systems on their smartphones will be familiar with the idea of ‘dropping pins’ to mark their location or the location they are looking for as an aid to navigation, but ‘pinned where I am’ also carries the sense of being pinned down or trapped. We are accustomed to the sight of people whose eyes are fixed and pinned down on their smartphones as they walk, bumping into others and missing both the beauty and the clear landmarks of the world around them, and this is where the final ‘turn’ or ‘volta’ of the poem comes:

I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

‘The map is not the reality,’ as the old Zen Masters used to say. We can get lost in our representations, we can mistake the image for the real thing; sometimes we just need to look up and be where we are in order to see where that is. This certainly applies to our Christian pilgrimage. …

Perhaps this is a good stage in our journey through Lent to look up and take stock, to keep to hand and use what is clear and helpful and to leave behind what is confusing or disorientating in the maps we have been given. Playing again on the idea of the turn or ‘volta’, Ordway offers us the image of someone turning and turning to orient themselves. But of curse the word ‘turn’ has a deeper Christian resonance. The true turn, the real ‘volta’ is the turn we turn at the beginning of this journey, on Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, the turn of metanoia or repentance, when we turned away from sin and turned to follow Christ. Every so often we should look up; if we have inadvertently turned and gone astray, we need to turn again and be ‘oriented’ to face again the true east of our rising sun.



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