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Emma Bolden reviews CARTA MARINA
Published Work: 
Emma Bolden
Country Dog Review

Through the searingly beautiful triptych of poems which make up Carta Marina, the reader follows Ann Fisher-Wirth as she plays the part of cartographer, attempting to label, organize, and therefore make sense of those parts of her experience which seem most nonsensical, most impossible to understand, and most impossible to reconcile with and relate to each other. During a ten month stay in Sweden, the speaker attempts to make sense of her existence in the “rainy hours” of an unfamiliar and iced-over country where she is confronted not only by her own physical frailty – her chest hurting so much that she can express the pain only in fractured language (“—Want to sleep want a painkiller strong enough to take the pain / away so I can remember the suppleness of breathing”) ? but the frailty of human life in general. . . .

Having already embarked on a journey through these darkened territories, the speaker’s experience of the world is further fractured when a past love appears in her present. Fisher-Wirth’s poems portray, with unflinching honesty and heart-wrenching accuracy, the process of mapping one of modern life’s most treacherous territories: the intersection between the present and the past allowed by modern technology. She struggles to find a name for the experience,

[t]o honor the present

and honor the past, be in the present

and not shut off the past [...]

so that loss // is not the whole story.

The poems follow the painful process of transforming the terrain of her life by allowing a past love to develop and grow in the present. The speaker is forced to “re-map” her life in the present and in the past, both as the woman with three grown daughters and a husband who “sleeps beside [her], / beloved, actual,” and as the eighteen year old girl who fell in love. . . .

As Fisher-Wirth maps and re-maps the landscape of her life, she turns for inspiration to Olaus Magnus’ 1539 map, the Carta Marina. The map presents both an eerily accurate depiction of the geography of Sweden and additional illustrations which maintain a mixture of fact and fantasy. . . . [It includes] unnatural interruptions, monsters and other creatures which disturb the natural order but nonetheless co-exist with the ordinary animals on the map. Like her former lover’s e-mail, these creatures appear out of the depths to rear their heads and render the natural order unnatural: “Two very large sea monsters / The one truculent with its teeth / The other horrible with its horn,” the “erect whale” who “sinks a big ship / With a look of dogged satisfaction...” and “Demons” who “serve themselves on the flesh of captured men.”

Fisher-Wirth turns to the map and to these illustrations for explanation and guidance. . . . She realizes that “the map’s a girl;” cartography, then, becomes itself a mode of creation, and the world of the poems opens as Fisher-Wirth begins to follow not the product but the process of mapping through the telling and re-telling of her story, which, in essence, re-creates it. In this way, and only this way, she can come to terms with their story.

Like Magnus, whose tendency toward continual revision and re-evaluation led to twelve years of work on the Carta Marina, Fisher-Wirth names, re-evaluates, and revises her experience. . . . With a fierce and wrenching honesty, Fisher-Wirth forces herself through the process of cartography, which allows her to finally feel the emotions covered by thirty-seven years of silence: “One day the waters have their skin on. // The next day, after thirty-seven years, / a voice, a stone falls through.” Able finally to face the situation as it was, the bald mapped facts of it, Fisher-Wirth is finally able to grieve for the stillborn daughter she carries “forever, whose shadowy face is turned forever away from her,” and to love the men of her past and of her present: “Oh the heart / wants it all, every lover forever in me, / every lick of the setting sun wetting the wintry birch trees.” Through mapping her life in language, Fisher-Wirth works beyond her metaphor to the raw and real truth behind the words, which are, after all, just words – “Friend is just a word. / Love is just a word. / In love is just two words.” However, like the key of a map, these words act as tools and symbols to direct her in a journey towards revelation, revision, and rebirth. It is the gruesome and glorious cartography of language that leads her “towards hunger and toward plentitude,” and also towards healing: “I said to Peter, ‘Now I will turn the wheel / and finish the cycle with spring poems.” In this season of rebirth, during which “seeds, seeds / riot in the ground,” Fisher-Wirth is able to move beyond mapping and even beyond language to the center itself, the source of love and life and grief, “The split heart-- // The heart still split-- // All this human love and anguish--”