Review: The Cartography of Sleep by Laura Villareal

by DW McKinney

The Cartography of Sleep by Laura Villareal 

Nostrovia! Press, 2018

38 pages / Purchasing link

I was fascinated with finding meaning in my dreams when I was in college. I still am, but back then, when I could wake up unconcerned about anyone else’s needs but my own, I’d sit undisturbed on my bottom bunk bed with my laptop. I typed furiously before the scene details blurred and the dialogue faded from my memory. I would then submit the day’s dream log to a dream translation website. While I slept, I had conversed with the Loch Ness Monster in scenes out of silent movies and performed underwater rituals as a warrior mermaid. Sometimes teeth poured out of my mouth whenever I spoke to someone or my feet sprouted snarling roots to keep me bound in place. 

I knew my dreams defied the forecast of wealth regularly ascribed to them by the “freaky dreams” website, but I did not have the language then to describe what I believed they actually meant. I wish I had read Laura Villareal’s The Cartography of Sleep in college because then I would have had her poetry to map out the pain I was enduring and to define my struggle to save myself. 

Villareal’s poetry collection begins with a quote by Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.” It sets the tone for the following pages, reading like a warning etched over a doorway leading to the otherworld. Lorde’s words in congruence with Villareal’s text warn us that our silence—or the static comfort of our knowledge—cannot protect against the new world we are about to traverse. 

The featured poems span the gamut in form while also displaying multifaceted imagery and sharp complexity. The poems are at times empowering, amusing, or sensual like everyday dreams any one of us experiences while asleep. They are even surreal like the gentle terrors or cautionary tales whispered to us by relatives passing along oral histories late at night in a dim room. And with this collection, we sit in such a room with Villareal, our storyteller, or in this case, our cartographer. Her words carry us across varied landscapes where the characters are creature, mortal, and divine, and thus, The Cartography of Sleep reads like a collection of folklore.

The first poems—“The Astronomer’s Daughter” and “Artemis Chases Huehuecoyotl”—establish the overarching folkloric theme. The latter is an exceptional example of how to interconnect multiple myths, demonstrating the possibility for these old-world stories to exist harmoniously and to not compete against each other. These opening poems also center queer characters and narrators who live within shifting temporal spaces—themes that are also present in the rest of the collection. Through Villareal’s words, we become “the other” and everything, existing in liminal spaces. 

Greek and Aztec mythology are explicitly referenced, but this begs the audience to read more deeply. There are likely references to other mythologies shaping these stories, adding another layer to their richness. Those poems that don’t immediately appear to exhibit a mythos still exhibit a dream-like quality, interweaving them in this same universe. 

The Cartography of Sleep balances its depictions of otherworldliness and humanity, but it eventually focuses less on the fictionalized stories and shifts its lens to a human storyteller. This shift is most noticeable with “The Long Trajectory of Grief,” where the narrator asks: “Is the nature of a crash to always leave something behind?” 

As we finish this poem, we leave behind mythos, allowing the narrator and their will to become more apparent. Here, the language Villareal once used to build new worlds begins to create new spaces for the human narrator—though it is entirely plausible to imagine this individual as being more than just human. The unidentified narrator transforms the spaces to tell their own stories and reclaim their power. We see this best in “(My)thology” where the narrator is confronted with the reality that they must stop telling others’ stories to tell their own.

These stories of the individual spill through with greater frequency in the second half of the poetry collection. The words still map out myths, but they also become a map of the self. And thus, they can then be transposed over the reader—the narrator’s experiences becoming ours and expanding on what we already know, cracking open the silences we may have and giving us new language to map our own stories of survival.

None of this—the extensive worldbuilding, the complexity, the evocative and palpable imagery—would be possible without Villareal’s skill as a poet. Villareal has a striking ability to create beauty in violence, life within death, and juxtapose them against tenuous spaces in a manner that cements Villareal’s poems as legitimate myths to be retold from generation to generation.

DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch MediaLinden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary JournalTAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.