The Portulan Principle

Monday, January 10, 2011

portulan: a maritime map that shows coastlines marked with safe harbors

The map I am making is obsolete, a nautical map from 1573, faded, tea-stained yellow, discolored in places by what looks like the heat of too-close candle flame. The paper is moth wing. The ink sea mist and foam. In the places where names of cities should be I trace coats of arms. Kingdoms replace countries. Sea monsters and the end of the world are as real as the Tropic of Cancer.

Such polyvalent maps are typical of the 16th century, the period of great European discovery.

Sometimes I am a hungry sailor poring over lost latitudes and the merciless blue of endless sea, wave upon wave, crash upon crash. All tumult. No land. No crow flies this far out.

Sometimes I am a compass rose flowering in the north; my petals bloom in geometric precision. I am ornamental but necessary.

Sometimes I am the rhumb lines, connecting all things. I am like the work of spiders, but when intersected, I create rectangles and squares, hard shapes, nothing as soft as a web. Still, everything is united by my sharp lines: compass rose to compass rose, tropic to tropic, the equator to land masses north and south, to all that was known of the world in 1573.

Sometimes I am just the maker of an unfinished map.

Once I went to Paris carrying a maroon leather–bound travel guide from 1936. Some places are forever: rivers and cathedrals, for instance. Certainly the book was extra weight in my small pack, but it rendered the illusion of timelessness, and if I got lost, I got lost.

I did get lost, and was sometimes frightened, but never fell off the edge of the world, not even when I met the lover whose rich parents gifted us three nights at an exclusive Parisian hotel in the best arrondissement. We made love with the balcony doors open, and when we stood later to admire the view, we received applause from the man across the courtyard, a slow clapping and a sinister smile. He followed us, later, down narrow streets, luring us with his heavily accented broken English, until we finally lost him. It was almost like falling, then, into the unknown, but I held on to my directions, found sanctuary in museums, alone; rejoiced in Gothic architecture, realizing that I was never meant to be in Paris with another, however rich and well-connected; and when my lover and I parted—she back to America—I boarded a train heading north to the city of bridges and canals, called by some the Venice of the North, called home by me for a while, called Stockholm on any authoritative map of the past millennium.

Before maps, the fate of sailors lay in the hands of one experienced in the reading of celestial bodies.

The map I am making contains contradictions. It is riddled with human fallibility, mistaken identities, good and bad intentions. I still long to get lost between someone else’s sheets or on streets that twist into neighborhoods not drawn on anyone’s map, but I know that like that leather jacket I keep stored in the attic, thinking one day I will slip into it and be twenty-five again, these things will never fit the way they once did.

The map I am making is nautical because I was born with the sun in Cancer, a water sign. This alignment of stars was supposed to make me the mistress of home, but even homes require a compass, even the domestic requires a map, which is why I am no sailor or seagull, nor any cardinal point. I am not even the woman who went to Paris twenty years ago with an outdated guidebook, because today I am unwilling to accept such geographic confusion; I am unable to untangle twisted sheets or guess where that street corner went. I require the stability that navigational tools can offer. I need accurate signposts and durable landmarks. The decorative whales and elaborate sailing vessels are useless to me now. I want a GPS navigational system preloaded with the latest maps of every corner of the globe, even places I know I will never visit; and location information fed from satellites; and time more accurate than atomic clocks; and turn-by-turn directions. Not parchment. I want to know the real name of where I am.

A map converts a three-dimensional landscape into a two-dimensional form and freezes it at a moment in time.

The map I am making may look like a maritime map from the Age of Discovery, when sea captains returned to the old world with new world mysteries more precious than gold; a map meant to be rolled, not folded; a map created by hands and eyes trained in the exactness of science but with a baroque flair for the ornamental because everything is, after all, aesthetics. My map, however, reveals only the truest north.

The map I am making might lead me only from one room to the next; from a child’s train set to my father’s old desk; from a cup of tea back to the open body of the woman who shares my bed. It might show me only three steps at a time, tai chi walk, a journey of forgiveness, a reunion, the holiest of sweaty love, but it will reveal.

With this map I am making I will distinguish the safe ports from the hazardous, the jagged coastline from the gentle bay. I will discover that my body is not an illusion and that love takes many forms. I will discover what I already know. I will discover what I cannot imagine. I will fold myself into the creases of paper and swim with the dolphins that leap beyond the crests of waves, knowing that at the edge of the world I will find out where I am.

Saturday, January 1, 2011