Jonathan Steffen’s straightforward, compact, single sentence poem earned its place with ease on the Cafe Judges’ Highly Commended list. Its blunt title, Road Atlas, hardly prepares you for the dazzling journey you are about to make.
I love the banality of locating a poem in a ‘layby on the A417’ and although the name Ampney Crucis isn’t comical in itself, the juxtaposition of the elaborate place name and the prosaic road number delivers a pleasingly intelligent shock to the expectations – a shock which the rest of this witty poem does not disappoint. This poet is accomplished and confident enough to know how endearing it is that he declines to take himself too seriously. He is comfortable comparing the veins on the back of his palms with ‘the pattern of B roads’ and offering us the throwaway description of his existence ‘being played out somewhere between the zodiac and the genome.’
At this point, the main idea of Road Atlas might have come to an end, which would have been allowable, but perhaps a little lame. Instead, Jonathan takes us with him into a mirrored hall of multiple universes, multiple possibilities and infinite disappearances. The back of a frosted leaf offers another map and, the poem implies, there are always other patterns, other maps, other directions we could take. The space between the zodiac and the genome, vast though it might have seemed, was only the beginning.
In relation to the space we inhabit, the idea that there can ever be a definitive Road Atlas has been proved by the poet to be absurd. The map in the frosted leaf dissolves almost as he notices it. The poem thus subverts its own title and itself, with skill and wit, delightfully.