Memento Mori: On Lauren Haldeman’s “Team Photograph”
By Lee ThomasDecember 7, 2022
Team Photograph by Lauren Haldeman
That ghostly corona shimmers across the pages of Lauren Haldeman’s experimental graphic memoir, Team Photograph. Haldeman spent part of her childhood in Fairfax Station, Virginia, playing soccer beside the battlefields of Bull Run Regional Park. In this book, Haldeman mingles personal history with the Civil War ghosts that visited her childhood bedroom at night. These visitations — hypnagogia, hallucinations that appear on the edge of sleep — recur throughout as the work skips back and forth in time. Team Photograph occupies a liminal space between childhood and adulthood, knowing and forgetting, physical and spiritual, and narrative and poetry. Like the apparitions of maimed soldiers, the Lauren in the book seems trapped between the wish to descend into or ascend beyond the cold embrace of the past.
Haldeman depicts her human characters as wolves, a choice difficult to separate from the definitive graphic chronicle of wartime survival, Maus. It’s made clear in the epilogue that this is an homage to her late brother, Ryan, who loved wolves. The loss of her brother haunts the book as much as the ghostly soldiers. But this death is more oblique, and less discussed, than the battlefield histories Haldeman weaves throughout. Even so, his absence disquiets the poems:
you begin to blink and they
are gone. Nothing else has
changed, everything is
exactly the same: the bed,
the dresser, the hallway,
This is when
The poem ends there, in midair. It’s part of a series of four bearing the same title, “An Incident: Hallucination.” They repeat the idea of a room “exactly the same” — except. In the poems, the exception is a presence, but as Team Photograph progresses, the exception in each interior world feels like a void, a blank space where someone has been cut out. Reading the epilogue, the focus becomes clear, but the avoidance of that central loss in the work itself can, at times, lend it a spectral, uninhabited feel.
That image of the missing brother, the missing son, recurs in a section devoted to the Robinson House, a building adjacent to the Bull Run battlefields that became a historic site, only to be burned down by an arsonist in 1993. Haldeman digs into the archives to learn more about the home of James Robinson, a free Black man married to an enslaved woman, Susan Gaskins. Two of his sons were sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana. One son returned after the war; one never did. Haldeman draws this lost son in various forms, most hauntingly as a gray silhouette.
War is a story of missing sons, brothers, and fathers. Team Photograph represents a memento mori for those losses, past, present, and ongoing. The poems repeat and refract images — gravediggers, a noose, coins, and bones. The Civil War left a litter of artifacts embedded in the land. Before her soccer games, young Lauren walks the fields looking for “bullet shells, buttons or coins.” The past is quite literally rising up to wound the living (one of the soccer players cuts her knee on a bullet fragment). The accumulation of all this past yields the raw materials of history — names and dates, geography and battlefield accounts — but the archeological layers do not draw meaning unto themselves; they only witness.
Team Photograph contains seven numbered “Fields,” and some of Haldeman’s most affecting poems appear in the section titled “Field 5.” In the archives, Haldeman learns what she can about the Robinson House and the family who lived there. At first, this research feels like a departure — “I had no idea what do to with what I’d learned.” But Haldeman connects it to the ghosts of her childhood and her family’s loss of both her father and brother. She expands her preservation and memorialization of the past to include the Robinsons. Inspiration comes through creating erasure poems from a Washington Post account from July 28, 1993, by Maria E. Odum. Out of Odum’s reportage, Haldeman removes words to create poems, leaving a skeletal reimagining. This form seems popular lately (see: Kate Baer’s work), though an artist repurposing an existing work to her own ends goes back centuries. In the third poem of this five-poem erasure cycle, the idea of a son rises from the page:
This poem relies upon the other elements of Team Photograph for resonance and meaning. The elegiac mood of the whole gives the repeated “son” a floating quality on the page, image bereft of voice, stripped to essentials.
That’s the thing about grief: what can you say? Haldeman’s reluctance to name her brother in Team Photograph gives the book a spectral quality, but such is the nature of fresh loss. In her raw reaching toward the past for some measure of understanding, if not comfort, she enters the stream of history and the universal experience of grief. Perhaps the requisite distance for directness only arrives in later generations.
In the generations since the Civil War, one of our greatest losses must be a certain untethering from common rituals around life’s passages. Deep comfort resides in the rites and duties surrounding birth, death, marriage, and coming of age. Monuments and memorials to the dead sprang up in the decades after the Civil War. Since March 2020, more than a million Americans have died of COVID-19. That number will soon exceed the combined total of all battlefield losses in our two bloodiest conflicts, the Civil War and World War II. By any measure, we are a nation awash in grief. Haldeman’s memoir gives a window onto that process for the individual. Team Photograph shows death compressing a lifetime of memory. All at once, the lost son or brother exists at every moment simultaneously, boy and man, arrested permanently at the age of his death. Remembering the departed keeps them close and honors that life. Together, Haldeman’s recollection of childhood visitations, soccer games, and battlefield history circle the ineffable loss central to this work — that of her beloved brother.
The Civil War occurred during the Victorian Age, an era of memento mori and widow’s weeds. Families who could afford it, and were lucky enough to receive a body with a face that could be shown, often memorialized their loved one with a death portrait. This wartime expense would have been a lavish, but to many a necessary, sacrifice for a lost father, son, or husband. Many such portraits still exist, some separated from their names and distant relatives. They show young men in battle dress, hair lovingly combed, faces washed a final time. The title of Haldeman’s work, Team Photograph, evokes the collective. On the cover, wolf girls stand in two rows, lined up in uniform before a game. Their faces show a moment of readiness and anticipation. One turns back and looks at the trees behind. This group portrait echoes the regimental photographs of those who lost their lives at Bull Run and Antietam, Shiloh and Vicksburg. In them, uniformed young men face the photographer: some lounge on the ground; some stand erect holding battle flags or rifles; tents and trees enfold them. For some, the photographer captured their last day, and though none knew the hour of his death, each was keenly aware of the possibility. In the poem “Vision,” Haldeman describes this unknowability: “[B]efore me / smoking, men in their / fuse of / time.” The fuse burns down, but none of us knows its length.
Haldeman first encounters the Robinson House when she returns to Fairfax Station to help her mother clean out her childhood home after her father’s death. Her brother died two years earlier. As she grows curious about the history of the Robinson House, she describes gaining “an unexpected type of courage. A courage that allowed me to move toward other subjects that scared me and gave me the tools to try.” The past can be remembered or forgotten, and both strains run strong in this country. We can deny our history, deny the roots of our discontent, lose ourselves in fantasy versions of the past, even attempt to erase or burn to the ground all that has brought us to this point. But truth rises like bones and bullet casings pushing through the earth; it cannot be suppressed. As Haldeman’s memoir shows, courage lies in facing the past and endeavoring to understand.
Lee Thomas is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles. Find more of her work at leethomaswriter.com.
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