The Split Heart: Carta Marina by Ann Fisher-Wirth

Carta Marina

Carta Marina: A Poem in Three Parts
BY Ann Fisher-Wirth
(Wings Press, 2009)

The cover of Carta Marina, a poem in three parts by Ann Fisher-Wirth, shows part of a sixteenth century woodcut map of what is now Scandinavia. Rich with heraldic shields, monsters of various shapes and forms, habitats, ships, fires, winds, warriors, and criss-crossed with navigation lines, the map holds a promise of orientation despite horrors and dangers. The author seized upon this map as the subject for her collection while working at the Uppsala University in Sweden. It is a fitting emblem; she had been thinking of how to overcome a desire to betray her husband, to whom the book is dedicated, and to escape the terrors this would entail: it is composed of pain and uncertainty.

The first of three parts of the collection, “Olaus Magnus’ Carta Marina,” opens with four cascading words:

First
notice
the bear

— “October 14,” p. 3

As if to signal the fall of virile masculine Nature, the majestic architecture of the opening lines is quickly followed by the description: “a beer-belly bruiser / lounging on slabs of iceberg.” “Ramming” the salmon he is holding “between his legs,” “he presses it like a lover, / wraps one arm around its neck, sinks his teeth // into its shoulder.” The salmon stares “North” or to “Heaven,” as she makes her hallowed sacrifice, and the author directs her thoughts south to “Paris.”

An email has arrived from a lover she knew in her youth. The lover’s words, in italics, jolt from the page. They contain stilted archaicisms and formalisms: “Unbeknownst, however, you have had no trouble passing through my memory” (p. 4). He feels “remorse”and is awkward: she was his “first ‘real’ girlfriend.” The author’s husband is “out walking in the forests,” absent while she “sit[s] on the floor in the dark,” sheltered from the rain. She “gaze[s] … at the wall-sized Carta Marina,” fascinated by this emblem of orientation as her mind seizes upon places

where the wild boar
charges and the chicken-creature
runs screaming amok
toward the Muscovy king.

— “October 17,” p. 5

As with the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours, after which Part III is named, there is an acute observation of the movement of the seasons. In “October 19,” the author seems acutely aware of the transience of beauty and its dangers, asking,

How can leaves hold so much light

while ice rimes every point of maple, of nettle
… listening to that single piano line rise softly

for a moment, like a stream wandering
…between thunderous cliffs of sound.

— “October 19,” p. 9

In “October 21” (pp. 11-12), the author says “Want to sleep want a painkiller… There’s no getting out of this easily.” Peter is once more absent and not virile, “walking all day,” contrasted to the phallic “pines in the distance.”

Rich with heraldic shields, monsters of various shapes and forms, habitats, ships, fires, winds, warriors, and criss-crossed with navigation lines, the map holds a promise of orientation despite horrors and dangers.

In “October 31” (pp. 19-20), the author writes of “The women of the Carta Marina.” They are potent, vital, and virile. One, her “gaze” confronting the observer, her hands on “both udders,” “gushes [milk] into a wooden pail;” another “skis beside her lover,” “[p]oised to shoot her arrow,” as “[h]er hair flows out behind her.”

The author’s lover of “37 years” ago is now a “doctor in Paris.” In “October 30” (p. 18), we learn that they lost a baby together and he has been harboring in him the thought that “he murdered her child by fucking her.” His tracking her down has shaken her: “In downtown Uppsala … I drank and grew desperate and hateful, and wanted to write Peter a note that said simply, ‘Hurt me.’” In “December 1” (p. 37), she stands in a museum staring at “flayed” man, whose “skin … hangs”: she, “a wife / who’s afraid she’s falling in love / … with a lost man… [who] / was her lover when her unborn daughter swelled and rotted.” The “mystery” is that this “girl / [still] carries this child/ … whose shadowy face is turned forever away from her.”

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