John Freeman’s Maps

John Freeman’s debut poetry collection, Maps (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), lyrical and candid, is centered in masculine experience that is both compassionate and reflective. The strongest poems combine poetic and personal voice through the use of plain language and well-crafted metaphor. The work is embedded with determination: “How we rage to create, to name, to remap the world.” The phrase “rage to create” is an interesting way to think about these poems because of the way in which they express deep—sometimes painful—emotions, while maintaining a tight rein on language and tone. Maps is unapologetically honest, deeply-rooted in image and song.

Freeman is skilled at articulating emotion through the use of poetic language. The lyrical voice is clear and crisp throughout the collection, including poems that venture into narrative. In “Legend,” the speaker, recounting the hardships his grandfather endured, proclaims: “The heart is not a diamond pressed down / into something like hard rock, but rather, the word….” The word, never revealed, is only hinted at in a nice ending lyrical couplet: “her name. / He’d say her name.” Alongside these intense narrative moments, the compressed poems that rely on metaphor are especially eye-catching. “The Blinding,” in its entirety, is one example:

If we
could make
an atlas
of pain
most land
would be
terra incognita.

There are two points of interest here that help the plainspoken nature of this poem carry poignant weight. The first point happens at “atlas / of pain.” The speaker offers little in the way of clear explanation, leaving the reader to construct their own “atlas of pain.” This provides the opportunity for deeper connections to manifest. “Pain” becomes “land” and whatever is imagined by the reader is nuanced. The second point of interest occurs at “terra incognita” which is heavy with metaphorical meaning. It points to the unknown, but more specifically, the unknown in regards to pain—physical, emotional, or psychic. This poem works well as a harmonizer, setting the tone for other poems in the collection that explore personal pain.

“Summer 1995” is one such poem that works with pain on multiple levels. It is narrative-based, confessional in nature; the speaker’s voice is free-flowing, almost naked: “Every morning I left her behind / in bed, holding me with a fierceness / I did not recognize as desperation, because / both of us were blind, we had invented this….” The poem, driven by commas and phrase bits, employs an interesting turn halfway through:

I had six jobs, one for a traffic-planning
firm; Tom and I would drive in the dawn hours
to an intersection, lay hose, then count cars
through our hangovers as they rolled to a four-
way stop. Someone, somewhere, would use
this data to widen roads, erect new signs,
trim the summit ash and red oak so that drivers
could reduce their speed in time. Astonishing
to realize there was such a thing as too much
beauty.

Here, the speaker confronts two types of pain—sexual love and economic hardship—both of which can only be fully understood in retrospect. So in actuality, time is the principle agent of pain. The speaker elaborates on this in the closing lines: “I was nineteen, I had another lifetime to learn this; all I could do then was stand / near the flame, and marvel at the blisters.” This is where honest revelation becomes a useful tool for Freeman: “all I could do then was stand” is a cleverly-written line, bringing all the elements of personal pain together in one lyrical moment.

“Tattoo” is another key moment in Maps because it successfully combines lyric and narrative while showcasing Freeman’s gifted plainspoken voice. The pain explored here is charged with a dark, magnetic vibe: “Driving around / L.A., top down / my brother / and I discussing / how to remember…. We decide / on a tattoo.” Tone and line composition drive this poem; the line breaks create tension and tightness that coincide with the winding image of a tattoo:

At
first it’s not big,
it’d be discreet,
the kind you notice
like the glint of
a watch.
But, of course, as
we talk it
gets bigger, it
elaborates.

In this section of the poem, “it / gets bigger” and “it / elaborates” enact the greatest point of tension; the idea of the tattoo becomes more involved. The speaker continues by saying: “It crawls up / arms, down / our thighs, like it / needs to keep / moving, grow- / ing to outpace / what it replaces.” This is one of the more innovative poems in the collection precisely because of how the lines are working in conversation with the lyric. The poem ends with an excellent turn:

What if
I get a tattoo
of her face
on my face,
is that
enough? We drive
in silence
for a mile, before
I realize that
is exactly
what a face is.

The tattoo becomes two faces: “her face” and “my face.” It is humanized, charged with emotion, and transformed into one face: “her face / on my face.” The image of the tattoo is now complicated with psychological pain when the speaker concludes: “I realize that / is exactly / what a face is.” Much like with “The Blinding,” readers are given the opportunity to insert their own visual meaning for “face.” The poem shifts to identity, how it is shaped and projected through the physical terrain of the face.

Two more poems worth noting for the way in which they add depth to Maps are “Ides” and “Childhood in Emmaus.” Although not beside each other, they feel like companion pieces, as both poems are engaged with music, but in different ways. “Ides” is a short lyric in eight lines:

And so
begins the rain,
stereo needle
lowered to
waiting disc,
volume raised
until a song
is heard.

The specific image of “stereo needle / lowered” works well with the auditory sensation of “volume raised / until a song / is heard.” In contrast, “Childhood in Emmaus” contains rich images fused with narrative voice: “big block octaves poured down our / brain stems as the sun set.” The speaker elaborates: “It was a small / Pennsylvania town full of cars on blocks, / jacked-up Novas and tricked-out Chevelles, asphalt lawns / and redbrick ranches. A decent man / didn’t have clean hands.” The mixture of sound, image and narrative serves as a nice counterpoint to the minimalist “Ides.” These poems, with their sensory strengths, are a pleasure to encounter next to more complex moments in the book, providing a wonderful range of poetic stimulation.

Maps is a good first effort for Freeman; he is well-engaged with handling complex metaphor through plain-speech. The voice he has cultivated throughout these poems represents masculine feeling in ways that are refreshing; it is gentle and intelligent, but does not shy away from the darker edges of personal feeling. The speaker does not dwell in pain, but rather, encourages transcendence, to simply “Remember the better names of the world.”

February 4, 2019