The word comes to mind so often while I am spelunking through Lauren Haldeman’s graphic memoir Team Photograph that I feel compelled to look it up. “Occupying both sides of a boundary,” or “relating to a transition.” Ambiguity. Disorientation.
Yes to all of these.
In Team Photograph, Haldeman layers three points in time—distant past, recent past, and present—on top of one another, then cleverly blurs the edges. This haunting memoir, which alternates between graphic novel and poetry, is oriented around her childhood home of Fairfax Station, Virginia, a town “named after the train depot at the center, which was built in 1851, on the Orange & Alexandria rail line.” This town is also a stone’s throw from the site of the Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the American Civil War. From its very first pages, Team Photograph leaps headlong into Fairfax Station’s Civil-War-era past, such as in the comic’s prose in “Field #1”:
This station acted as a triage stop and medical evacuation site during the Civil War,
would deliver the critically wounded
from the front lines of the battlefields 11 miles away, through forests “thick and older than envy.”
(Though Haldeman provides an extensive bibliography for her memoir, it is not always apparent from which source any given quotation, such as “thick and older than envy,” is derived—a minor complaint which rarely distracts from the book.)
Growing up, Haldeman played soccer on local fields—fields located in the same area where the Battle of Bull Run took place roughly 150 years earlier. The author remembers:
These fields were so near the battlefields that the referees made us walk them before each game
in order to look for artifacts
hidden in the grass:
things like bullet shells, buttons or coins,
because once a player had cut their knee
on such a remainder.
She describes feeling an eerie dissonance on those soccer fields even as a child, “how we played a sport representative of war / so near to the location of actual battle and bloodshed.” That dissonance is the key to the memoir, wherein Haldeman grapples—both as a child in the imagery and as an adult in the text—with ghosts that she encountered during her youth in Virginia, eerie apparitions which presented themselves in the shapes of the wounded and faceless casualties of the Civil War.
In “Field #1”—the book’s seven sections take their titles from the plainly-labeled soccer fields of her youth—Haldeman tells us, “For me / the beginning of poetry / was an attempt / to explain these visions.” This revelation ushers in a shift between the illustrated portion of “Field #1” and the poems which follow, with each section (or “field”) following this pattern. The effect is that of an illustrated haibun: an image-focused rumination in prose, followed by poetic response. Her poetry continues to disorient, for instance by weaving historical text into more personal narrative as in the first lines of “Tour”:
The hallucinations begin when we move to Fairfax Station
Down the dark road the crowds of
wounded, bloody & pale
[The soldier] remembered odd bits and pieces—
like the fact that his gun grew so befouled
Some nights they come from the hallway
They drag themselves into my room
with gunpowder he had to smack its ramrod
Ghosts abound in Team Photograph, and while Haldeman initially introduces her specters through her examination of the fields of Bull Run, later we discover there is a more personal visitation at play. As readers learn in the Epilogue, Haldeman tragically lost one of her brothers before his time:
In 2012, my youngest brother, Ryan, was killed in Denver. He was stabbed
to death on the street while walking home one night. It was a random act of
violence, without motive. It is still a cold case, as of the writing of this book.
After his death, my grief felt insurmountable.
Ryan’s absence can be felt throughout the book—not only in the words but in every image as, stylistically reminiscent of the mice in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Haldeman’s characters sport the heads of wolves in tribute to Ryan, who loved them. Though Haldeman makes passing mention of her brother throughout the book, it is in her final sections that she permits herself to fully surrender to the immediate, familial ghost story in front of her. Using the text of Walt Whitman’s journals entailing his experiences in a wartime hospital in the 1860s, Haldeman creates a compelling series of erasure poems—difficult to replicate here—wherein the act of erasure is also a seance which reconnects her to her lost brother. Ryan “appears” in Whitman’s words. “It was so good to see him,” the author says, simply. “I had missed him.”
It is a complicated maneuver to join all of these narratives and more—hypnagogia, Clara Barton, a nineteenth century arson, the inherent warfare of youth soccer—into something cohesive, let alone moving, and Haldeman executes it with confidence. Team Photograph teems with dissonance and liminality but coalesces into something tangible, if still ethereal. With all of the book’s near- and distant-past drama it can be easy to forget that there is a present-tense perspective at work in this memoir as well, Haldeman’s own adult voice as she reflects on her childhood, her losses, her confusions, and her never-distant grief. Team Photograph gels when the speaker acknowledges her own role as a witness:
There was a scrim of worlds,
a slight of sights, on that field 25 years ago.
. . .
The ghosts, long ago,
came to me
to be seen.
The accuracy and openness with which Haldeman does this seeing is what makes her such a riveting visual artist and poet. She is skilled at showing us several realities at once, at one moment deftly overlaying past and present through her illustrations, at another moment employing erasure, found text, and similar techniques to discover poetry hidden in plain sight. Team Photograph becomes a surreal American ghost story which, like memory, shifts and changes under a direct gaze—a memoir as patchwork as the fields of Virginia, unified by the confident sweep of Haldeman’s vision.
About the Reviewer
Erica Reid lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. She earned her MFA at Western Colorado University (‘22) and serves as assistant editor at THINK Journal. In 2022 she was nominated for Best New Poets and a Pushcart Prize.