Bible and Battle

Book cover
Ghost Mapsby Erin Noteboom

Wolsak and Wynn (Toronto). 95p $15


Erin Noteboom, born in Iowa, is now a Canadian writer whose two recent books illustrate a classic division of poetry into the genres of narrative and lyric.

Seal up the Thunder derives its title from the Book of Revelation, “Seal up what the thunder has said, and do not write it down” (10:4). The poetry here is extensively lyric, that is to say, imaginative and rhythmic. It is based mostly on the Old Testament, which Noteboom calls the First Testament.

In homage to the opening of the Book of Genesis, the poet offers “Suffrage to Water,” a litany of praises of water and cautions about water. The same playful impulse is active in her listing of the insects and animals that swarmed out of the ark, in “After the Flood.” She sketches a series of biblical characters, giving her own compassionate slant. Cain wakes up to some understanding about himself and God. Moses, within view of the Promised Land, declines to proceed: “Show me the honey-place but do not take me any further.” Delilah is painted as a woman of contradictions. Sarah “of the seven grooms,” while wary of the stranger Tobias, sees a spark of hope in him. Ezekiel in the field of bones hears the divine voice saying, “The dead may speak with tongues you should not hear.”

Central to this book is the author’s striking version of numerous psalms and wisdom writings. She includes an evocative love poem for her husband, suggested by the Song of Solomon, and entitled, “as the foxglove loves the fur of the bee.” Treating various psalms, Noteboom goes to the marrow of each, its actual subject and mood, which she transcribes in her own way, as in these opening lines to Psalm 131:

But I have burned to the waterline
But I have cried myself like a child to sleep
But I have stilled and quieted my soul

 The Bible abounds in proverbs and wisdom sayings that expose the weakness and contrariness of humanity. Noteboom’s poems follow that lead, as in “Heart-Cuckoo God”: “Pain takes me/ with his axe to the head./ I cry out/ and like a lover he/ takes me again. If I beg / what answers? Heart’s cuckoo.” Her poems “De Profundis,” “Job’s plea” and “Book of Wisdom” capture this constant swing between fallibility and faith, between our confession of our limits and our recourse to God.

Seal up the Thunder shows us how to probe the Scriptures, how to prayerfully and imaginatively steep our own experience and our own milieu in the inspired text so as to get our own proper sense from the sense of Scripture.

Ghost Maps is a set of reconstructed memories by a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, that desperate German counteroffensive in the Ardennes forest near the end of World War II. The poet built these narratives out of six months of weekly interviews with a veteran in Omaha, Neb. He asked her to withhold his name, so “Carl Hruska” is fictional. She drew on what he said to intersperse a number of brief monologues with the third-person vignettes of those dreadful days. Her aim was faithfulness to the frostbite and blanketing snow, the suddenness of wounds and death and the fiancée back home in the Midwest where prisoners of war were doing the heavy work.

Each incident of Ghost Maps is sharply worded, with admirable economy. Carl’s comments on the noise of artillery in battle, for instance: “No dog can stand it.” The glimpses of battle are permeated by the numbing cold, as in the poem “Ice”:

They slept in stooks—standing,
leaning in like sheaves of wheat,
their wordless breath
a fog between them,
. . . .
their tangled lashes sealed
as if with coins of silver.

The poems in Ghost Maps add up to a vivid history. The defining episode is a fusillade that shatters Carl’s leg and sends him home as an amputee. The views of his return and his 50 years as husband and father let us appreciate the continuing stamp left on his life by that winter in the Ardennes.

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