blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2010  Vol. 9  No. 2
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Review | Carta Marina: A Poem in Three Parts, by Ann Fisher-Wirth
                Wings Press, 2009

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Like a cartographer unsatisfied to abandon the old map with the notation “Here Be Monsters” in the empty spaces, the speaker in Ann Fisher-Wirth’s latest book of poetry, Carta Marina, explores the past’s landscape and encounters the dangers of dallying at the edge of her known life. The poet deftly portrays the emotional crisis occasioned by an old lover’s resurfacing and the choices the speaker must make as she faces her past, contends with emotions, and considers the other people whose lives will be affected by her decisions.  The book chronicles the journey through the emotional damage of a life denied and the process necessary to live wholly despite experiencing incompleteness and loss.

Carta Marina’s three sections reflect the ups and downs and the confusions of the emotional terrain. Written like a diary, the book is composed of individually dated poems chronicling the ebb and flow of the speaker’s emotional crises, much like Olaus Magnus’s original “Carta Marina” and the mapmaker’s accompanying notes. And mimicking the creator of the map, the speaker continuously adds another detail more, desiring to insert yet one more facet that might help more fully contain the story. She finds it impossible to avoid incompletion, impossible to fill all the spaces where monsters dwell, impossible to avoid an ending despite the fact that pieces of the heart do not yet fit neatly together.  The individual poems demonstrate strong line breaks and internal line spacing that tends toward controlled fragmentation, like breath reined in by effort alone.

Carta Marina covers the unstable terrain of the heart and memory, difficult to map due to the mutability of emotion and memory: “How do you carve these currents in your woodblocks?” The poems provide figurative representation of the emotions: calm waters, bloodstreams, and the way that at a moment of emotional crisis, “the waters closed over us both.” The fluidity motif reappears in rivers, the sea, ice shards, and even wine throughout the linked poems that comprise the book. For the speaker, emotion is fluid, temporal, untidy, ugly, and visceral, like this description of an image on the actual Carta Marina:

“Gnashing their teeth, the pig-faced
furl spray
backward from spoutholes
that extend like gut or sausage”

Emotion rises up and troubles the waters, time and again.

The poet utilizes the horse as a symbol of the self, demonstrating the speaker’s attempts to bridle emotion. The mature view she posits, of “it’s just emotions,” suggests that taming emotion should be possible and that doing so would make life tidy, easier to cope with and more precise:

Where like good little ponies, staunch soldiers,
      Olaus Magnus’s identical
           woodcut trees
                march along Frisia

Fisher-Wirth’s conceits address challenging concepts such as the question of whether feelings, in their fleeting temporal existence, can be considered real. In “December 3” the speaker has doubts about the reality of the borealis she witnessed on the horizon. If it is difficult to concretely identify something she sees, how much more difficult to identify emotions held in memory’s wavering grip? Just as the borealis can be misidentified, perhaps what she remembers as love can also be misidentified because memory can recall things not quite true. The speaker sometimes retells the same story differently to tidy up the past, as in the pair of poems “October 28” and “October 30”.  Her first attempt at the story begins “Heart, you are gazing / at a girl,” contradicted by “No, say it this way,” in the subsequent version. In both of these and several later poems, the speaker corrects and amends the narrative, discovering along the way that “memory misremembers.” If the memory of what might have been is compelling enough, the memory could be amended yet again, making it difficult to chart what she originally felt during the events or what really occurred.

As in Five Terraces, Fisher-Wirth's second collection, Carta Marina centers on an art piece as an organizing device for the narrative. In Five Terraces, the poet utilizes a scroll as a guide to reading the poem, while the map in Carta Marina is included as a baseline of reality. The map is a touchstone to help the speaker discern between reality and feelings that were fleeting or even only imagined. The juxtaposition of the descriptive poem sections with a facsimile of the actual map demonstrates how language can never encompass the entirety of the real object or experience—how something must always be lost between the sign and the signified, between the word and the translation of the word, between the world and the representation of the world. Even the map, the “real” object, is no longer a true representation of the land and seascape; after years of erosion and change, the current geography certainly no longer corresponds to Olaus Magnus’s creation.

In the end, the book becomes a lament for a life that can’t be mapped completely; no matter how hard the speaker tries, some outcomes are simply unknowable, some memories unchartable. She cannot “go back to that moment before the moment.” The past cannot be reshaped, except in the imagination, and such reshaping would be terrifying, demanding the erasure of her known life, husband, and children. Though she realizes, “I knew I could live / through this free fall, could permit the sea to flood / the open window,” she also knows that to imagine this shadow life would mean losing her “golden daughters” and her “beloved, actual” husband. To return is impossible anyway. The coastline has changed with time; the lover, risen from the “icy mercury blackness,” is changed into the father of a son “the age of that moody boy” she once loved. All that remains is the opportunity to “get on the dark bus and let it carry” her to wherever it may lead, through the emotional landscape of her life.

Carta Marina demonstrates Fisher-Wirth’s skill at the layering and accumulation of details to evoke emotion, notable in the section that begins with “December 1” as the speaker searches the body to discover if it holds any solutions to the matter of the heart, if under the skin there exists a corporeal answer to all the troublesome emotional queries. The details accrue: the flayed man who is the “correlative object for a wife,” the “nearly frozen Fyris River,” the waters that “have their skin on,” and the examination rooms of “The Anatomical Theater.” When she examines the body without all the bothersome mess of the heart, she realizes, “How hollow / hollow is. / The entrails gone. / The ribcage soaring.” No one can live without the untidiness, without the visceral pleasure and agony.

The essentialness of love, a major theme from Five Terraces, becomes a difficulty in Carta Marina. In “December 18,” the speaker ponders the role of love in making decisions:

Oh no, Horsey, we have not solved the problem of love.
. . .
You will gallop me to the edges of the map
                           and I will lie down there

Off the edge of the map, off the edge of the known life, here be monsters. The poem is a tender description of the hazards of trading a known life for the thin ice of the unknown, exchanging the solid, actual love for one that has arisen like an impossible-to-ignore whale from some deep sea of memory. The speaker struggles to discern if this old emotion is fleeting like the borealis, something she can at last give up:

           up from my heart, throat, and away from me,
                                                 giving it
into the night air
     as you, Horsey, graze peacefully on ice shards.

Carta Marina maps, in credible detail, the moments as the heart swerves and the balance of life quakes in the immensity of facing down the past or choosing to lose oneself in that past. As the crisis passes, the speaker chooses to collect her breath and continue, accepting incompleteness and the unavoidable blankness at the margins of the map. Her world settles back again in the reassurance of a life, and a book, built moment-by-moment into something sturdy and strong enough to encompass

     The split heart—
                                                       the heart still split—
All this human love and anguish—  end

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