Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands

This book, originally published in German, was assigned to two years ago my introductory poetry workshop. It was an interesting item on our reading list, as the book more obviously qualifies as creative non-fiction than poetry (its American publisher, Penguin, classifies it as travel/reference). I agree with the instructor of the workshop, however. Atlas of Remote Islands is a book of poems, and I will tell you why.


Schalansky opens the book with an essay in which she describes her early attraction to atlases as a means of travel – something she was banned from doing in her early life as a citizen of East Germany. She then moves onto the story of islands and what they can mean: and escape, a laboratory, a prison, a utopia, a hell, a microcosm, a story, a stage. She then talks about maps & what it is to create a map:

Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name. This foreign land is both occupied and possessed and the act of conquering it is repeated in the map. Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.

And, as so often is true with good writing, this essay is both about its subject and also about writing itself:

An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned to fact.

That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discovered of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.

Schalansky thus makes a good argument for her claim that “it is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to become recognized as literature,” for like maps, like written histories, re-fabricate the reality they aim to represent.

Atlas of Remote Islands is also an exceedingly beautiful book. Schalansky has studied typesetting and in fact invented the font for the book. It is a pale blue, hard-cover book, with inside covers and dividing pages of a complementary toasted orange. At the top of each prose passage (which lie on the book’s verso pages), beneath the title, are carefully laid-out facts and visuals about the island’s coordinates, population, location, timeline, size, and national affiliation. The maps (on the recto pages) are sparsely ornamented, delicately printed masterpieces which represent the islands’s topography (by means of shading), villages and cities, landmarks, and roads.

It is a remarkably well-crafted book. And this attention to aesthetics makes sense: if journey by means of atlas is to be a rewarding one, shouldn’t the object itself offer something more than just what is contained in its text? Schalansky understands something profound about representation. She quotes the latin adage scribere necesse est, vivere non est — “only that which is written has actually happened.” And what is written is itself a happening. The representation is not merely a simulation, but itself is an experience.

But much has been made, in other reviews (all which are good reads: The Guardian, National Geographic, The Spectator, and Literary Review) of the aspects of this book that I have discussed above. Less has been said of the quality of the actual writing. Let’s talk about the poetry of the book.

What makes a prose poem a poem? My opinion is that is has to contain essential poetic elements — image, music, metaphor, and metric beauty. But, taking as it does the a shape we traditionally associate with narrative and plot, a prose poem ought to offer more semblance of a story than may be expected from a poem-shaped poem. What is brilliant about Atlas of Remote Islands is that it takes real, historical facts and, by means of poetic devices, transforms them into living stories. Here is an example, the entry in the book for Macquarie Island on page 78:


The text begins in manner of an information text, but establishes its poetic nature in the second sentence, “It is a piece of the earth’s crust from the ocean that just happened to shoot up above the sea level, a vertebra of an undersea spine that rises above the water.” The non fictional character of the text is affirmed by the use of actual quotation (one of these days I will do a whole post on quotation and found language). Double backslashes inserted between sentences suggest the pause or jump we experience with line-breaks and section-breaks in poetry. Most important (here and in poems in general, maybe): the ending image. Schalansky is a master of the haunting yet conclusive image — she has a way of ending each not with rhetorical statement or explanation, but with an image that leaves you feeling as though the story you have been reading is in fact entirely different than you first thought.

The compactness of Schalansky’s writing is astonishing, and upon closer reading it becomes evident that as much care has gone in to the structure, pacing and poetry of language in each passage as has gone in to the design of the book, the research behind it, and the drawing of its maps. Thus one thing we can learn from Schalansky in addition to the power of a book that is aesthetically well-planned, is the power of non ficiton that is carefully informed by the methods of poetry.


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