It's Just Emotions
a review by Lesley Wheeler
Carta Marina: A Poem in Three Parts, by Ann Fisher-Wirth, Wings Press, San Antonio, Texas, 2009, 81 pages, $16.00 paperback, www.wingspress.com.
A map shows you how distant your destination is, what tangled roads lead there, what mountains and monsters loom in the way. The sixteenth century map of Northern Europe reprinted in Ann Fisher-Wirth's new book is speckled with ships and sleds to remind its admirers that it isn't only a work of art; it is meant to be useful and urges one to get moving. Appropriately, Fisher-Wirth's marvelous long poem, Carta Marina, embraces travel and connection across great distances of time and space. Arranged in three sections that document a ten-month Fulbright in Sweden, it depicts and enacts many journeys, both literal and figurative. Her poem also maps the present onto the past when an email jolts the speaker into re-experiencing an old love.
In this book, however, the most important function of cartography is not guidance. Instead, the Carta Marina shows Fisher-Wirth where she is now and gives her an aerial perspective on her present emotions. Maybe all good long poems offer that analytical distance; long forms require the author to stand back, develop motifs that sleep intermittently, create rhythms that structure not only syllables and lines but whole poems in sequence. What impresses me so such about Carta Marina, though, is not only how it uses that intellectual distance to shape a messy life into meaning, but how it also remains true to the confusion and sensory overload of experience as it occurs. In this, her third full-length collection and a breakthrough book, Fisher-Wirth assembles a world-class poem about desire. Like the title map, the poem is populated by a hundred little hungers, each as compellingly strange and vividly rendered as the Carta Marina's myriad beasts.
Two narratives give the book its powerful forward movement. By dating each lyric fragment, Fisher-Wirth highlights the most familiar one: the progress of the year, from the leafy autumn of Fisher-Wirth's arrival in Sweden, through the solstice when "the bowl nearly brimming / with black / tip[s] toward light," to spring's "scribble of forsythia." The real-time of this seasonal story is both rich with beauty and sharp with pain. The speaker is coping with what a doctor calls a "cage around the heart," aches in the bone and cartilage that make even drawing breath difficult; she is also grieving the deaths of two students and admitting, with each squeezed inhalation, other people's sufferings into her consciousness and into her poems. The second narrative involves unexpected contact from a former boyfriend, whom she knew only as a teenager in the 1960s; he is now a married doctor in Paris. The relationship had broken apart when the pregnant young woman began to bleed; her child was stillborn, and her boyfriend fled, blaming himself for the baby's death. Fisher-Wirth unfolds this tale in a non-linear way, constantly revising and reframing a story built from emails, prose poems, and passages of free verse. However, the story's continuing resonance is clear. The present-day correspondence is chaste and even results in the speaker and her husband visiting her ex-lover and his wife in Paris, but she is deeply frightened by the intensity of these revived feelings and the danger they could pose to her happy marriage. She admits contemplating physical infidelity, but the sensation of desire is actually the central problem. During this period of dislocation, it threatens to remap her whole life story.
There is no pat answer to this dilemma—how does a happily married person manage extramarital love? Fisher-Wirth, a fiercely honest poet, does not offer one. She respects appetite, shame, and self-destructive fury and depicts those illicit feelings with candid power, even though she concludes, near the end of the book, that "it's just emotions"—that feelings ebb and flow but do not necessarily dictate one's behavior. Spring resolves winter by the end of the book, but nothing can fully resolve the loss and breakage of personal history. Instead, Fisher-Wirth offers perspective and context. Next to grief, there is the study of Olaus Magnus's giant woodcut map. Next to hunger, there are "jackdaws in peppery clouds," a synecdoche for all the gorgeousness of nature. Spring proceeds; love persists.
Some of the best love poetry of the nineteenth century depicts renunciation—think of Emily Dickinson. Fisher-Wirth, conversely, renounces nothing. She chooses to ask questions instead, freely admitting their dangerous, beautiful, changeable answers:
Every night I wake at the wolf hour,
Vargtimmen, the hour when men go mad,
the hour of dread, despair,
of suicides and births. Last night
when I woke I asked it, What do you want
from me? What do you need from me?
And saw this: black black until a line
across created a horizon.
Then bulge, an arc of light,
as if a moon were rising. The arc
of light became a fold in darkness,
and from it, one by one, great wolves
ran toward me. They did not
mean me harm. They were the forms
that flow from pure dark's pure light.
Facing these contradictions is wiser than denying them, even though pain and desire remain wild and uncontrollable.
This is a big enough poem that there are many other ways to read it. For example, Carta Marina evokes other cartographical meditations by poets including Elizabeth Bishop, A. R. Ammons, and Deborah Miranda. Its interweaving of lyric and narrative embeds it in a tradition of twentieth-century long poems—Williams's Paterson and H.D.'s Trilogy seem especially relevant here. Carta Marina also offers an elegant retort to ritual complaints (the latest, as I write in March 2010, appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education) that the current profusion of poetry books makes the most valuable works too hard to locate. This book is a gift, even though it slipped the net of top prizes and prestige publishers and was delivered to the world by a small press. However, as yet, it has not received the attention it deserves. Perhaps one reason is that this is a true long poem, not a lyric sequence that could have been excerpted in twenty magazines to drum up a little reader anticipation. Like many other poetry books, Fisher-Wirth's slim volume creates its own context and maps its own complex, various world. I hope other reader-explorers do find it, however, and blaze a broad track in its direction, because Carta Marina's wonders are many.
Lesley Wheeler's reviews have appeared in Shenandoah, African American Review, and many other publications. She teaches at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia.