Book Review   

Carta Marina by Ann Fisher-Wirth, Wings Press, 2009. $16

Reviewed by Moira Richards

Olaus Magnus spent more than a decade carving the nine wood cuts that comprise his magnificently illustrated Carta Marina sixteenth-century map of the Nordic countries and surrounding seas. Ann Fisher-Wirth’s book-long poem by the same name is also a dramatic tour-de force that lifted and swept me along to its finish—I could not put the work down.

Fisher-Wirth braids seamlessly, the close examination of that old map and a ‘hiccup moment’ in a long-married woman’s life—a hiccup caused in part, by the resurfacing of a thirty-seven-year-old, but not forgotten, tragedy.

The poem opens when the narrator is spending a year with her husband abroad, in Sweden, at Uppsala University where she begins her study of the huge, detailed, nine-part map:

            though we are far far North,
            here, alone of all the map, is iceberg.

            Two swans sail in synchrony
            above two eels or fish toward rocks where
            a fiddler plays a tune

            and a ferret or ermine runs home
            to his mate peeking out from a shawl-shaped tunnel.

            The fat-cheeked wind howls down from the West

Then, back to the present, the fragment of an email from Paris appears as stanza in the poem. After which the narrator continues to gaze at the detail of the old Carta that reveals now, some sense of disquiet despite the orderly, neatly stepped line indents:

            Where like good little ponies, staunch soldiers,
                        Olaus Magnus’s identical
                                    woodcut trees
                                                march along Frisia,
            where the wild boar
                        charges and the chicken-creature
                                    runs screaming amok
                                                toward the Muscovy king.

Over the page, the narrator’s husband translates the first five parts of the alphabetised key to the old Goth’s map. And Fisher-Wirth ratchets up the drama with some hint of dual meaning.


Miserable ice indicating faithfully
By the moaning of the human voice
That it causes the soul of a man
To be tormented there…


Gnashing their teeth, the pig-faced
furl spray
backward from spoutholes
that extend like gut or sausage
from their scalps. Their brows
furrow, their lower incisors
curl on their cheeks like scimitars
as a sailor
tootles loudly on the deck
and barrels bob in the pitching sea.

And jackdaws still
      scream and wheel
            in the Prussian blue sky.
                  Ice on the rooftops.

Head South now.

But as in any enthralling tale, protagonists take no heed and the plot deepens. Another piece of modern correspondence, this time an email to Paris, transformed into couplets, and the reader is drawn with the narrator back into her past:

                                                            —I think
            it can be done, not lose the past, not lose
            the thread of one’s life, but allow it
            to be transformed, so that loss

            is not the whole story.
                                    Yes, you were 19 and I was 18…


Again the poetry returns to Magnus’s Carta—with slant commentary on the ‘real life’ of the poem’s present day protagonists, almost in the manner of the chorus of a Greek tragedy:
                             But there’s something, Peter says, he’s just not getting.


                             Two Very large sea monsters
                                             The one truculent with its teeth
                                                            The other horrible with its horn.


                             An erect whale sinks a big ship
                                             With a look of dogged satisfaction…

                      Demons serve themselves on the flesh of captured men.

The poet next turns her attention to human activity in the map, and to the women depicted in Olaus Magnus the Goth’s opus. One blithe young lass in particular whose mood is evoked in the carefree scattering of lines across the page and whose

            …hair flows out behind her.
                                    Poised to shoot her arrow,
                        she skis beside her lover
                                                in Finmarchia,
            wearing Grecian robes
                                    and a white beret.
                                                The sea’s a girl, the map’s a girl.

The stage set, the characters introduced, the complication disclosed and Fisher-Wirth returns her poem to the present with page upon page of poetry of lamentation for what might have been, for aging, for lost health, lamentation for a lost daughter—all narrated with the scale, with the passion of an opera libretto.

            You will gallop me to the edges of the map
                                    and I will lie down there
                        to the ones that pass
                                                like electrolysis
                                    through and through the far fields of my body.

            My tongue will cleave to the roof of my mouth
                                    and my hands will burn and shake, lifting love
                        up from my belly,
                                                up from my heart, throat, and away from me,
                                                                                    giving it

                                    into the night air
                                                as you, Horsey, graze peacefully on ice shards.


Shall I disclose the end of the story? Will I leave it for you to discover? Just a hint then of what, if you look closely enough, the old Goth and his map divine:

                                        (Olaus Magnus, still
                               trying to end the Carta Marina:
                     on the far right side in Russia Alba,
            a weasel in an ice cave, looking backward,
                               holds up a sign or scroll that says):

            Olaus the Goth, to the kind Reader:

                                                                                    And a lion
                                                                      In the far right corner:
                                                            Behold the terrible lion
                                                            Whom a mouse freed from his
                                                            Bands thus the great are often
                                                            Helped by the smallest labor.

                                        CONQUER EVIL WITH GOOD     

Moira Richards lives in South Africa and hangs out here: and here: She, with Norman Darlington of Ireland, edits and publishes the annual Journal of Renga & Renku.