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Carta Marina: A Poem in Three Parts

Carta Marina: A Poem in Three Parts

by Ann Fisher-Wirth

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A vivid, strange, and beautiful account of a year in Sweden, this poem represents the ways in which wildness and monstrousness, dream and terror, coexist forever with constructions of order. Inspired by a medieval map of the same name, the poem weaves the gloom of the author’s forgotten past with the pain and pleasures of her present life, creating a treatise


A vivid, strange, and beautiful account of a year in Sweden, this poem represents the ways in which wildness and monstrousness, dream and terror, coexist forever with constructions of order. Inspired by a medieval map of the same name, the poem weaves the gloom of the author’s forgotten past with the pain and pleasures of her present life, creating a treatise on motherhood, marriage, love, forgiveness, reconnection, and abandonment.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A breakthrough book from a significant poet."  —Booklist

"Passionately and precisely, sensuously and learnedly, Ann Fisher-Wirth’s Carta Marina maps the terrain of our earthly fidelities and losses, calling them forth in all their varying shapes and flavors, by name. These poems summon abundance, recording in their pages a fully inhabited, fully inhabitable world."  —Jane Hirshfield, award-winning poet


A breakthrough book from a significant poet.

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Wings Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Carta Marina

A Poem in Three Parts

By Ann Fisher-Wirth

Wings Press

Copyright © 2009 Ann Fisher-Wirth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-089-7


I. Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina

October 14


    the bear,

    a beer-belly bruiser
    lounging on slabs of iceberg

    with a salmon big as he is.

    Ramming its tail between his legs,
    he presses it like a lover,
    wraps one arm around its neck, sinks his teeth

    into its shoulder. North or to Heaven
    the salmon stares while the other Ursa

    Alba on a somewhat larger floe
    snarls up at his rival's feet.

    Ice broken off like a gingerbread house
    piles to a peak in the Mare Glaciale;

    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

    on the tented plains
    of Iceland.


    Marble that's gray as my clothes
    gray as the rain gray as the streets gray as the Fyris river —

    marble and water make patterns swirling into sleep
    into featherbeds you seek, falling — when you wake it's night when you walk it's night
    when the sun slips through like a torn strip of primrose silk

    behind the wet trees, the black and blotted October leaves
    it's night again, nearly.


    Fragment: Email from Paris

    Down they forgot as up they grew.
    Unbeknownst, however, you have had no trouble

    passing through my memory (remorse).
    I was therefore happy to learn where you are.

    If you were not living in Europe
    I would probably not have written you now ...

    You, my first "real" girlfriend ...
    October 17

    Peter's out walking in the forests —
    we're here in Sweden ten months, two gone already —

    I sit on the floor in the dark exhibition room of the Carolina,
    and gaze through rainy hours at the wall-sized Carta Marina

    Where like good little ponies, staunch soldiers,
    Olaus Magnus's identical
    woodcut trees
    march along Frisia,
    Saxonia, Holsathia, it is 1539,
    they make their stand
    in Samogethia, wind all the way north
    through Russia Alba

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

    October 18


    Pope Paul III 11 March 1539
    In the Fifth Year of Our Pontif icate

    To the future memory of the matter.

    Since as our beloved son Olaus Magnus
    The Goth recently made known to us
    That he himself wrote during a long time
    And with great labor a geography
    Or description of the Northern Places ...

    Olaus Magnus the Goth Salutations to His Kindly Reader

... This table of the Northern lands and of the marvels contained in them (which I publish to the praise of the most serene Doge Pietro Lando and of the Venetian Senate and to the public use of the Christian world) is divided into nine parts according to the nine major letters, ABC etcetera. ... Under what small letters the matter that you seek is contained within a capital letter.



    The island of Iceland and its unusual miracles.


    Three mountains
    On whose exalted summits
    Is perpetual snow and in whose
    Bases eternal fire —


    Four fountains, diverse in their nature.
    By one, perpetual heat sent forth
    Turns everything to stone
    Remaining (however) in its proper form.
    The second is intolerably cold.
    The third flows with grain liquor
    And the fourth exhales pestiferous contagion.


    A fire pastures in water
    And is not extinguished by it.


    Ravens white falcons
    Picas bears foxes white hares
    Black foxes also.


    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.

    October 19

    How can leaves hold so much light
    while ice rimes every point of maple, of nettle —

    Tonight, listening to that floating melody
    at the heart of the Emperor Concerto,
    listening to that single piano line rise softly

    for a moment, like a stream wandering into
    thin gold sky air
    between thunderous cliffs of sound —

    and that Chuck and Jonathan, my students, being newly dead
    would never hear it, never sit in the Aula
    gazing up at its leafy panels and painted dome of stars —

    October 20

    Fragment: Email to Paris

    I am glad you told her you're writing me.
    I don't want for there to be secrets.

    To honor the present
    and honor the past, be in the present

    and not shut off the 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 ...

    October 21


    The woman stopped by the woods
    on the rocky path toward Sunnersta,
    and knelt on the frosty
    ground in front of a birch tree.
    It shook its leaves loose,
    golden leaves. She just
    stayed there at the edge of it, white-haired, kneeling.

    Yes, but this pain scares me.


    On the train to Eskilstuna —
    smudged-out land
    bare fields
    dirty mist in the trees
      (Peter is home again, walking all day)

    pines in the distance
    only a few red leaves.
    The fields are all harvested now sharp
    stubble red paint that beautiful Italianate glow
    on the outbuildings
    hay baled in white plastic.
    And I'm going to Eskilstuna my chest killing me
    to talk to the future teachers about poetry.

— Want to sleep want a painkiller strong
enough to take the pain away so I can remember the
suppleness of breathing There's no getting out of this
easily But schoolgirls in jackets their hair down their
back in braids chatter together happily and it's 9:35 on
the train —

    Red roofs this clayey red
    as if someone remembered Mississippi

    as if someone remembered summer
    lemondrop yellow slatted wood
    olive green charcoal gray the beautiful colors of houses
    and the lassitude
    of willow trees reflected in the water.

— Oh something is all wrong in my back and
the bones of my chest feel crushed Is it my heart's hurt? I
draw breath like filling a glass up Narrow Narrow —

    October 25

    In a crown of what seem daggers,
    the demon sweeps his stables.
    Ravenous, grinning, he brandishes a whisk broom.
    Horses behind him whinny,
    locked in their stalls, heads snapping.
    From the stable door their piss runs,
    river down mountains to the sea —

    But wilder than Olaus Magnus' Norway,
    the ultrasound,
    bloody red screen
    throbbing and pulsing in the middle of it,
    and that is the fist of my heart,
    knot tensing and then relaxing, red vortex,
    nebula of my galaxy. I am so grateful to it
    for pumping steadily, for not being too big,
    I lie on my side and want to pat it. Nice heart.

    October 26


    It contains the first part of Greenland and its inhabitants
    around the letter A


    They show themselves to be expert sailors
    Who shoot at ships

    And they do this themselves safe
    And from that the ships are turned over and sink —

    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.

    (Draped with spines and jewels
    like a fish-tailed warthog
    wearing a scalloped mantle

    And a tunafish wearing a clown hat)


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


    A fisherman striking the ice with an ax
    Stuns and captures the fish beneath.


    Reindeer are domesticated in herds
    And harnessed to chariots, surpass the fastest horses.


    Demons serve themselves on the flesh of captured men.


    A domesticated herd of reindeer moving according to
    Custom on the frozen lake toward
    * * minera auri gold mines.

    October 28

    Yes, but how do you map this sea, Olaus Magnus?
    How do you carve these currents in your woodblocks?

    Heart, you are gazing
    at a girl
    at the bottom of a well,
    a girl in whose belly a child quickens,
    who rises naked, calm
    from her boyfriend's bed
    and walks to the bathroom through dark
    dark night, rosy calm girl
    who sways a little, love-loosened, her breasts
    warm on her belly, and you are gazing
    at the smear of blood on the toilet paper,
    then at her walking
    back to the bed,
    still naked,
    and everything different forever then.

    With that blood the girl,
    oh her warm
    body soft as a moth's wings
    starts down its long
    road toward November,
    toward the forceps,
    the stillbirth, the hospital bed —

    And you are gazing
    at a boy
    who loves chess
    and hates psychology, whose hands
    are knob-knuckled
    and eager and whose mouth
    always tastes of Chesterfields,
    a boy who keeps house with her
    in his sister's house
    when his sister is gone,
    fog spilling across the Bay,
    him buttering bread, reading the paper,
    on the stereo Dylan
    or Miles Davis,
    them turning to the bed
    like wind blows through eucalyptus trees
    or rain runs down leaves
    again, again —
    a boy who will blame his body
    that warm midnight and never
    tell her, never
    tell her why he vanished —

    October 30

No, say it this way.

Playing house in 1965, the two of them drifted like leaves along calm water, like air that eddies and flows first through her lungs, then through his lungs, warmed by the heat of the stove, stirred by the blades of the ceiling fan. And the child shifted and grew, an elbow, a knee sculpting her side, its small life thrumming in her bloodstream. For these few hours, spread over as many weeks, they were a family.

After 37 years he has emailed. He's a doctor in Paris, he found me in Sweden. "You drew back into yourself then," he writes, and though I had forgotten, he's right. Between rising from the bed and coming back to bed, I found the blood on the paper, and my heart chose. I was spotting, I was terrified, I shut my body against him. And soon the waters closed over us both.

So that now, come home tonight from the pub in downtown Uppsala where I drank and grew desperate and hateful, and wanted to write Peter a note that said simply, "Hurt me" — now how I want to go back to that moment before the moment: that girl flushed, rosy, the boyfriend at peace sprawled out long on the bed. She has not started down the road yet toward the blood, the gray coffin. He has not feared yet what he will fear for 37 years, and never spoke of to a soul: that he murdered her child by fucking her.

October 31

    I. The women of the Carta Marina

    Her hair flows out behind her.
    Poised to shoot her arrow,
    she skis beside her lover
    in Finmarchia,
    wearing Grecian robes
    and a white beret.

    Two women worship a red cloth.
    Two are present
    for the pouring out of blood
    near the lion in Scricfinia.
    These are pagans, given in marriage.

    One leans against a grinning,
    three-antlered reindeer.

    Milk gushes
    into a wooden pail
    from both udders, the one her hands press
    as well as the other. The woman
    is round-cheeked,
    sturdy. She gazes toward us.

    Some of the bears and birds are girls.

    The sea's a girl, the map's a girl.

    II. The Kingdom of the Animals

    We watch them all, one mating act per meal.
    It's the Discovery Channel, only
    thing that's not in Swedish and not MTV.
    He makes a leap, and the fried-egg edges
    of her jump and twitch like water on a griddle.
    This is stingrays, fleshy pancakes thrusting
    and writhing; he holds her, the announcer says,
    with one pod while the other pod acts like
    a penis. When I was little I could never
    say the word penis. By "little" I mean
    under forty-five. And the gray shark bites her
    pectoral fin and hangs on as over
    and over they go, white bellies reaching,
    roiling, nowhere joined yet except fin and teeth,
    underwater Siva of a thousand flashing mirrors.

    One night I stayed up late. I was lonely,
    Peter was sleeping. A couple "made love"
    in an MRI machine, barely able
    to wriggle in the tube. I don't know
    what the TV researcher wanted to determine,
    but for days I held that image to my heart
    like a hot water bottle, blurry length
    of a cock tucked all the way up snug
    to the mouth of a womb. They showed the cock
    bends at the base to get in, like a strong
    sapling. It snub-noses forward, like the
    blind man I saw this morning, his white cane
    feeling his way through a construction site.

    November 1, 3 a.m.


Excerpted from Carta Marina by Ann Fisher-Wirth. Copyright © 2009 Ann Fisher-Wirth. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ann Fisher-Wirth teaches English and environmental studies at the University of Mississippi. She received the Rita Dove Poetry Award and two Poetry Fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission. She has also received the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. She is the author of Blue Windows and Five Terraces. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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