A Review of David Hinton’s Fossil Sky

by Alexis Vergalla



David Hinton’s text Fossil Sky is single sheet of paper that stretches fifty-four square inches.   I am forced to say text, as this is not a book in any standard sense.  The reader cannot approach this text as a traditional book or poem.  There is no spine, there are no collections of pages, and there is no way to gauge one specific length of this piece.  The single page unfolds and spreads open and a thin perfect circle in blue ink nearly touches each side.  This line is the only division between the inside white space that contains the text and the outside white space.  Within this circle, words meander and twist, aligned to no edge of the page with no one beginning or end.  Phrases form chains, but without the guidance of a specific sentence to contain them.  Words drift by themselves, a “pKeeerr” rising above the edge of text parading beneath it.  Already, I am forced to describe the text in three dimensional terms, instead of a standard linear narrative.  There is difficulty in quoting text that fights the standard format for line and punctuation, and to quote with entire accuracy I would have to give a pictorial detail for each word.  Instead, I will try, within this paper, to suffice with a transcription of words and the spaces surrounding them.  This includes the addition of punctuation within brackets to indicate the stop I have chosen.  Even with these acknowledgements, paths cross and words mesh into one another, making it impossible to distinguish each as a separate entity.  These places will also be marked.  If this collection of words cannot be called a book the question must be asked; what can this text be called?  The large page, the internally circular design, the meandering paths; all of these factors lead in the same direction. This is a map.  As a traditional poem, this text fails, but it is my argument that this project does succeed if the reader is willing to approach the poem as a project in cartography.


A map exists to convey information, but this is a somewhat shallow definition that lacks the complexity present within maps.  In Power of Maps, Denis Wood writes “every map facilitates some living by virtue of its ability to grapple with what is known instead of what is merely seen, what is understood rather than what is no more than sensed,” (7).  Poetry, too, tackles the project of conveying more than what is seen and sensed.  A poem strives to communicate an understanding and a sense of knowing. What, then, separates the idea of map and the idea of poem?  In Fossil Sky there is no divide between a poem and a map.  The poem is the map, the map is the poem.  To read Fossil Sky, one must consider cartography.


The art of cartography (i.e. of drawing maps,) is the art of leaving things out.  A map drawn to include all the information available would confound and confuse the map-reader.  “No map, of course, can be completely “true.” It must always sacrifice truth in one dimension to show truth in another,” (Muehrcke 328).  Street maps must show the streets, forcing the details of the buildings that line the streets to disappear.  At the same time, feature maps designed to give the emotional impact of a city through depiction of the predominant buildings and landmarks must sacrifice accurate navigational information in order to show the features in a way a tourist may remember the experience.  Fossil Sky is a chain of words, but the overall impression of this text is of the blank, negative space.  The mere presence of words emphasizes the fact that elements of this map have been left out. 


To know what is left out, we must know what is included.  Maps require keys or legends as a way to unlock the information displayed on the page.  A map from a forestry service may include triangles for designated camping areas and a walking staff for trailheads.  A map-reader familiar with the language of camping maps can shift from one to the other with little need to consult the specific legend at the bottom corner of the page.  At first glance, Fossil Sky appears to have no legend beyond a brief “Notes” section that defines the terms “Circačte” and “Borie.”  However, this is a map made of text.  The legend may as well include the definition of written language, indicating that groups of letters form units of meaning known as words.  As a reader of the English language we already know this legend.  We can begin to process the information spread before us by looking at the units of meaning, the syllables that form words and the words that form thoughts.  As the reader processes the language she begins to feel the narrator of Fossil Sky crossing over the physical space that the text demarcates.  Although a graphical representation of geography (i.e. shades and tones to indicate type of land or lines to indicate physical rise) is absent from this map, the geographical markings exist within the keys.  One line reads, “A stream tumbles through it, delighted childplay among the perpetual ruins, and fills a stone basin[.]”  There is a physical locality to this poem/map that is discovered only as the reader begins to trace the paths of words and unlock the keys.


In a book written in English, we are trained to begin on the first page.  The words begin, left to right, and we follow the poem down the page.  This is not the journey of Fossil Sky.  There is no beginning in a poem that circles into itself, crosses its own path and never finds an edge to rest on.  Again, we must look at the keys of language.  A thicker capital font marks a place where an idea may begin, but like a true map, there is no one beginning.  On a map used for traveling by car, cities are marked as larger dots, written in larger fonts, but these do not indicate a beginning point through which meaning must be derived.  These are only markings, and the traveler may begin within this city, or work her way towards the marking.  One line of Fossil Sky (may) begin:


No point in asking about gain or loss   I’m too tired for all this beauty and silence    too tired for the Teapot sprawled out  sparkling across autumn skies  for wide-open wind-parched headlands where the sea forgot itself into limestone mountains


The reader then has a choice to make.  Arc left, and follow the trail— “We’re more sky than anything else     more sights and sounds forgotten and lost” —tilt to the right and follow “into a circačte that gently alights on its rocky perch   arranges its features[.]”  Through the word “features” the word circačte repeats, cutting across the center and leading into “and river and  this body’s shape  at death   dark confusion:”   Of course, the line can continue on instead of turning, changing the line to read “and surveys the valley below  then spreads its wings and drops lightly back into flight[.]”  The combinations and possible paths seem endless.


The manner in which we must read Fossil Sky is not how we are taught to read poetry.  Instead, we must lean on how we are taught to read maps.  Maps are not read left to right.  Instead, we read maps by their symbols, zeroing in on what information we need to discover and connecting points across the field of the map to create meaning.  We are forced to read Fossil Sky as we would read a trail map, selecting a start point and tracing its pathways.  While there may be a point that is marked as a trailhead that indicates the beginning of a path, the map will simultaneously show other trailheads and the journey is not limited to single beginning.  As we proceed we must make decisions at each divergent point in the path to create the meaning of the piece.  Phillip and Juliana Muehrcke write “A map engages a writer’s creative thought because it is truth compressed in a metaphorical way, holding meanings it does not express on the surface.  In this sense, a map may be equated with a poem,” (328).  Meaning in maps is created through the network of connections a map-reader makes.  How closely lines fall to one another on a topographical map indicate incline and elevation, and how large the font of a city is compared to those around it indicates its relative size within this specific map of cities.  Each map has meaning that is constructed through the relationships of its individual elements and given information for this map, because, as Marc Trieb states, “unlike a language of words, the language of symbols used for maps is not consistent from one map to another,” (6).  This seems to contradict the idea of moving fluidly from map to map, but Trieb is not writing about the differences between camping maps.  Instead, the inconsistency he refers to is in the difference between types of maps; a map that shows camp sites and a map that shows cell-phone service.  He continues, “[t]o alleviate the problem of inconsistency, a legend is included with most maps to assist the user: it is the vocabulary, if not the exact grammar, made explicit.  These elements exist only in a fixed relation to the ‘grammar’ or logic of a particular map, and are not necessarily transferable,” (6).  As I have stated, the reader is aware of the “legend” in Fossil Sky because the reader is aware of the rules and vocabulary of the English language. 


A third element always implicit in map reading is the map-reader.  “Any discussion of mapping involves the triangular interrelationship of the task, the user, and the graphic from that results from specific constraints,” (Trieb 14).  Poetry, too, exists within a triangulation.  In Projective Verse Charles Olson states “[a] poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader,” (3).  Olson is a particularly apt voice to quote in regards to Fossil Sky.  What more “OPEN” verse can one find than a poem contained within the circle of a map, truly “COMPOSITION BY FIELD,” (Olson 3)?  I retain the capitalization Olsen uses throughout Projective Verse to emphasis his points in regards to Fossil Sky.  This poem’s meaning does not and cannot exist without the reader; it is the reader’s journey and choice that create the meaning of the poem/map.  “From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION— puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself,” (Olson 4).  Although Olsen’s “he” refers to the poet, within Fossil Sky it is doubly applicable to both the writer and the reader.  The nature of this text forces engagement on the poem’s terms.  To read Fossil Sky, the reader must be willing to abandon preconceptions about beginnings and endings.  In this, poems and maps again align themselves.  A map created to display the emotional impact of a city (i.e. a feature map) cannot be accurately used for navigation, and to approach such a map looking for navigational information would be to ignore the contract of the map in the first place.  When looking at Fossil Sky, the reader cannot require the standard conventions of poetry that contain one beginning and one ending.


In discussing the physical layout of Fossil Sky, I have, thus far, sacrificed discussing its lyrical content.  As previously stated, it is difficult to accurately quote a poem that has multiple options and a distinct physical shape.  However, the lyrical content is tied implicitly to the physical form.  “In rising air above the sun-baked village, swallows circle   tracing empty [large space break] arcs of air, lit [large space break] wings shimmering [large space break] in and [large space break and text cross] out of view [large space break] exacting the eye’s various distances of sky[.]”  Within this line, the text rises and falls, much as bird flight does, and as the words describe the swallows weaving in and out they enact this motion on the page, weaving between other lines of text.  In another example, the line (may) begin “A circačte cries in slant light igniting broken cliffs, its [large space break] pKeeerr [large space break] pKeeerr [large space break] pKeeerr [large space break] rising above sun-baked rock as it circles, tracing empty  arcs of air, lit  [large space break]  wings shimmering[.]”  The sounds of the circačte, (identified in the Notes as “a European snake eagle that often hunts by hovering over fields while searching for prey,”) literally rises and falls, snaking through the negative space of the poem and lifting the line that begins “rising” above and to the right by nine inches from the line that breaks off “cliffs, it[.]”  In addition, although this text is found in a different sector of the poem/map than the previous quote, there are phrases that are almost identical.  This sense of repetition is consistent with map keys where, for example, identical tent shapes repeat to represent different and individual campsites.  The swallows and the circačte are not identical, but both are represented with “wings shimmering” rising above a “sun-baked” landscape.


It is impossible to read Fossil Sky without reading it as a map, and again I reiterate the difficulty in citing Hinton’s words properly.  While the principles of cartography are the guide for reading Fossil Sky, these same principles are also the limitations that exist in transcribing the words within their graphic element.  The quotes that I have used are sketches of the poem rather than a complete rendering.  Though it may seem a daunting task at the onset, approaching this text as a map allows the reader to let go of preconceived notions of reading.  The reader is then free to follow the words, as they are, to create and discover Fossil Sky.



Works Cited


Hinton, David. Fossil Sky. Archipelago Books, 2004.


Muehrcke, Phillip C, and Juliana O. Muehrcke. “Maps in Literature.” The Geographical Review 64.3 (Jul., 1974): 317-338. JSTOR Archive.  University of Riverside, California Library, Riverside, CA. 13 Jan. 2008. < http://www.jstor.org >


Olson, Charles. Projective Verse. New York, Totem Press, 1959.


Trieb, Marc. “Mapping Experience.” Design Quarterly No. 115 (1980): 3-32. JSTOR Archive. University of Riverside, California Library, Riverside, CA. 13 Jan. 2008.       < http://www.jstor.org >


Wood, Denis. The Power of Maps. New York, The Guilford Press, 1992.