Everything Sings: Intimate Cartography

Rob Tennant


I’ve always loved maps. Growing up, I reveled in the stack of roadmaps in the glove compartment of my dad’s pick-up. I got lost in the selection at the back of social science textbooks when I should have been listening to lectures. I palpated the relief-globe at the back of my grade-school classroom like God reading braille.

Denis Wood puts my childhood infatuation to shame with his new book from Siglio Press,

Everything Sings. It is an epic love poem to an idealized vision of what cartography can be, beautifully realized, though only in part if you believe the author.

Reduced to its base elements, Everything Sings is 70 pages worth of maps of Boylan Heights, a neighborhood just outside of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina about  one and one-half miles on a side. That doesn’t touch what Wood succeeds in doing with this text, however. Everything Sings is a book of maps like Batman is a prominent member of the Gotham neighborhood watch.

In his introduction, narrative-documentary darling Ira Glass boils it down to: “Wood is writing a novel where we never meet the main characters, but their stuff is everywhere.”

In the author’s opening, a readable and concise history of cartography, socio-economic trends of the suburban expansion of Raleigh (and by extension, the US), with some personal biography and modernist theory thrown in for good measure, Wood lays out his claim of what maps can be. Really, what they already are.

Rather than a reference tome of irrefutable facts (ask Google and the respective governments of Nicaragua and Costa Rica about irrefutable facts), Wood argues that all atlases contain a narrative and that the publisher of an atlas, wittingly or not, betrays biases and agendas and invariably tells some kind of story simply by making choices concerning the sequence and layout of the maps it contains.

His goal, spanning his entire career since he earned an advanced degree in geography 40 years ago, give or take, has been to create a truly and self-consciously narrative atlas. Everything Sings is his first draft.

He and some landscape architecture students started making maps of Boylan Heights in 1982. But these were not your typical street maps with the agreed-upon elements neatly labeled and a tidy little scale, compass rose, and legend in the corner. They created hand-penciled and painted individual artifacts, each suitable as a separate Google Earth layer out of an over-worked municipal bureaucrat’s rabbit-hole nightmare.

The first map (and again, the story is largely in the sequence) is entitled Night Sky. It is a detailed depiction of what you’d see lying on your back on the top of the hill that is Boylan Heights. The view is of a clear summer night, bordered by obscuring trees.

There is one of a paper-boy’s route, climbing off the page as a perspective-induced ribbon depicting not only where Lester (the paperboy) traveled, but how long it took him to deliver the evening news.

There is one, not of the streetlights, but simply of the circles of light they broadcast.

My favorite series of maps comes late in Everything Sings. In one, property values are coded. In another, the number of times a property was mentioned in community newsletters is depicted. Taken together, they tell an eloquent tale of social influence as it compares to wealth. From these maps the conclusion is drawn that status in the neighborhood flows from the address, not the individual.

The enjoyment of Everything Sings is not just about the maps, however. Wood’s opening chapter, touched on above, is a brief but invigorating stroll through 20th century intellectualism. The texts paired with each map are a well-balanced mish-mash of history, commentary, poetry, and craft. Though the book lends itself to a casual flip-through, taking in the maps simply as individual pieces of art, Everything Sings is meant to be read.

Having done just that a couple of times now, I feel about Boylan Heights the way one might have once felt about a distant pen pal that one had never met. Everything Sings succeeds in transmitting an intimacy with the neighborhood to the reader, but this familiarity is cloaked in the intent of the author. I know now, in intricate detail, what Wood wants me to know about Boylan Heights without the harsh light of an actual face-to-face encounter with the neighborhood to spoil the carefully constructed projection.

The subtitle of the book is Maps for a Narrative Atlas (emphasis mine). That is to say, this collection of maps and the explanatory prose poems and essays that accompany each are just the beginning of what Wood hopes to do with his studies of this small section of Raleigh. I hope he lives up to that promise because Everything Sings definitely left me wanting more.


Related Articles from The Fanzine

Rob Tennant on Banksy, missions to Mars and indie rock

Jamie Gadette on the Dehumanizing Effects of Sam Pink’s Person

Ben Fama on Bluets by Maggie Nelson