Plum Ruby Book Review

The Valley's Singing Day

"My window curtain hung over the sill to wet;
But I should awake to confirm your story yet;
I should be willing to say and help you say
That once you had opened the valley's singing day." --Robert Frost

Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska by Erin Noteboom Wolsak & Wynn, 2003 95 pages, $10.50 (paperback)

Reviewed by G.S. McCormick

Almost immediately into Erin Noteboom's 2003 book, Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska, one senses a compassionate approach to telling a story that, perhaps, resisted being told. "The mind has maps," she writes: "carries the ghost self/close and secret, like a man/buttoning a scalloped snapshot/into his heart's pocket." It is this "heart's pocket" that Noteboom is bent on exposing, the maps that mark our secrets and pain, leading towards the ultimate question that is the basis of Ghost Maps: "How much of the memory/is carried in the body?"

For Carl Hruska, the pseudonymous figure at the center of Ghost Maps, this ghost self has its genesis in an early memory of crossing the Atlantic by steamer towards war. "There is a theory/about this," Noteboom tells us, "the way pain builds its nest/like paper wasps/in a branch gone hollow." Carl is traveling towards that very 20th-century plague: fighting a war in the fields of Europe. It is the winter of 1944/1945 in a rural part of northern France called the Ardennes, scattered with small villages, stone bridges and criss-crossing fields. A French military officer once claimed that the Ardennes forest was "not dangerous. It is impenetrable." But the Nazis proved him wrong in a series of events that would later collectively be named "The Battle of the Bulge." For Carl this big man's war becomes a personal, lonely winter spent scavenging, keeping warm, witnessing only fragments of the largely invisible war, holding onto memories of his hometown in Kansas and a woman called Vivian.

Divided into six sections, the first third of the book, "Fall" and "Winter," are characterized by isolation.

  They slept in stooks -- standing,
leaning in like sheaves of wheat,
their wordless breath a fog between them
so that when they woke
their slung rifles were edged
with ice…

Indeed, the only human connection throughout these first two sections are Carl's memories of Kansas ("the fields are blue") and Vivian (knitting as she bakes bread), and a haunting scene where a Frenchwoman runs out into the cold winter field to give her best linen to Carl as camouflage against the blowing snow. There is no strategy here, no real battles to speak of, just echoes of them, painful images and the inescapable cold.

Though Noteboom resists labeling Carl an "Everyman," there is little to suggest that his tale is remarkable or even unusual. Indeed, it is not by virtue of Carl himself that we are drawn into this story; rather, it is in the details: the colors, images, contradictions of how war is fought on the ground by men.

Ardennes - January 1945

The hardest thing was night, all white
and the snow whipped up
in devils. Or worse,
still. The cold --
you could hear everything.
Trees that creak and crack
like rifles. Voices,
sometimes, words
you couldn't make out,
or cattle, bawling to be milked.

And if, indeed, Carl operates as projector of the human side of war, then the question Noteboom must ask is where this will take him, and thereby, us?

  How much of the memory
is carried in the body?
Lost bones speak to him of vision,
of deep water. Phantom,
it's called, that voice, that itch.

It is in "Spring" when the isolation of winter melts and we see hope in the opening image of a blackbird building a nest of human hair and field chaff. Carl finds human connection again, there is laughter, the people return to Carl's tale, a rebirth punctuated ironically by an injury that ultimately leads to Carl's leg being amputated. He returns to Kansas with one leg, a short painful season of war finished. Yet we know that he will never truly leave the war behind.

Carrying the memory in his body, his leg missing, flashes of memory of the winter spent killing and dodging death himself. His single leg "lying there/on the crocheted top/of the dressing table,/like a practice rifle/waiting for oil." And sitting in the afternoon sun with Vivian, recalling "Sunset and the pluming chaff/is red and slow/as flares, falling,/falling. He remembers//bones are said/to knit…" Where does one place memory? Through the next two sections, "Summer" and "How Much of the Memory", Carl's story becomes even less unique. He marries Vivian in a summer wedding, they have three daughters. We are told little about the details of his life, though the story is punctuated with the occasional "flashback" of his brief tenure as a soldier at the on the battlefield. Indeed, it is through these flashbacks that we are allowed access into Carl's life. Working in an orchard field, trimming back trees:

  All day, he does this
slow work. He has seen fire
do it quicker -- shells popping limbs
with blind precision.
Through the twilight, now,
black dog bounding like a mortar.

Still later, Carl reflects that during still moments "the war fits its bodies curves to his,/and time, like snow, blossoming in water,/touches his face, vanishes." When Vivian dies, we pass into the final, and most hopeful section, "Empty Page" where Noteboom herself enters into the story as "the young researcher". It is here that Carl is able to reflect on his history and where his story does take a turn into unique territory. For it is only by reflecting on his history that Carl Hruska can incorporate Ardennes into the tale of his own life, and it is near the end of this life that Kansas becomes, once and for all, his "native country." He has returned to himself, as it were, to the memory of an "decent boy" on a steam ship crossing the Atlantic. "Everything moves full circle," James Baldwin once wrote, "towards revelation."

And by exposing Carl Hruska's "heart's pocket," Noteboom has shown us a glimpse of our resilience as humans: an essential, compassionate tale about the past and how it shapes us. And that is the ultimate lesson of Ghost Maps: it is in the telling of his tale, in Noteboom's relaying of it, that Carl can finally know his place. It is not really his story, as he himself resists his name being attached. It is the story: the story of war, the story of memory. It is Homer and Tolstoy, Stephen Crane and Full Metal Jacket told in images:

  In a blue field, he sees a buck
lift up his head, then arc
into the air, like a bridge of silence.

Poems from Ghost Maps Erin Noteboom 2003. Reprinted with the permission of the author. Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska -- Wolsak and Wynn Toronto 2003

To read an interview with Erin Noteboom, author of Ghost Maps, Poems for Carl Hruska or to read more of Erin's poetry, click here.


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