Where It All Goes Down
From here to there and back again, this poem takes us on some super time-space adventures. Primarily, the happenings of the poem occur in two different places, at two different times. When we're in the present day, we're basically inside of the speaker's head, feeling what she's experiencing of the woods and listening to what she thinks about the limits of cartography. But when the poem transports us to the past, we're right there with our speaker and her boyfriend, chilling in the forests of western Ireland (in Connacht), checking out the sights.
We can see the "ivy and the scutch grass," and we can smell the "balsam wood." And it's in this lovely, if a little gloomy, forest, that we notice the famine road. Though it may not exist on maps, this road is etched into Connacht's environment. The nation's tragic history is quite literally written in its landscape.
Set In St—er, Roads
And what's that history? In the 1840s, potato crops all across Ireland were struck with potato blight, which rendered the potatoes inedible. Because the potato was the Irish people's main food source, millions went hungry during this period. And instead of offering free food to the Irish, the British (who were doing just fine) offered them food only if they went to work. So hundreds of thousands of starving Irish people began building totally useless roads across the countryside. These roads are called famine roads, and they're visible all over the countryside today. (For a more detailed history of the famine, check out our "In a Nutshell" section.)