Lauren Haldeman’s Team Photograph
The Ghosts Don’t Stop for Anything: A Review of Lauren Haldeman’s Team Photograph by Brady Alexander
In the summer, back two years ago, I was tear gassed by police. Gas canisters, in case you haven’t heard the noise they make, create a sound like gunshots as they fall. We were holding signs and wearing black. We were wearing buttons with Breonna’s face on them, and building shrines to her along the center of the square. We were at a lull between the marches. Most of us were eating the granola bars and chugging down the sweating water bottles that the organizers brought. I was talking with my friends around the outskirts of the square. We wondered if we’d march again or go home for the night. And many of the other protestors, in the road by the corrections building, knelt before police in riot gear. We thought they shot at us.
After all, throughout the summer months, their victims’ names would grow. It wasn’t in the moment that I thought this. In the moment, the stampede of folks was on my mind. And how dark it was. And how I couldn’t see. And where my friends were. And how to reconnect with them. And screaming. And the stinging. And the burning. And if I had saline to treat my eyes. But later, maybe even weeks later, I thought about that moment in the context of the past and of the future. I thought about the other movements across time. I thought about the march on Washington. I thought, as many people did during the time, about the carnage of the Civil War. And if there’d be another one. Obviously, it’s still on people’s minds.
Lauren Haldeman’s new graphic novel, Team Photograph (Sarabande Books, 2022), for example, is haunted by the war. It’s morose and tender, and examines—however much it flinches when it does so—the atrocities of a nationalism that deems some people worthy to be people and other folks as far, far less than that.
Haldeman is the author of Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry), Calenday, and The Eccentricity is Zero. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Tin House, The Colorado Review, The Iowa Review, Fence and others. A graphic novelist and poet, she’s received an Iowa Arts Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award and visiting fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and University of Cape Town, South Africa. Read her work in Issue 12 of Miracle Monocle.
Team Photograph is an examination of the Civil War, and the ways we talk about the Civil War, from the perspective of a kid, a contemporary kid who sees ghosts everywhere: “I was a soccer player at Bull Run Regional Park,” she says, bridging the present and the past, witnessing the spirits oozing from the trees. It’s surreal to see the numerous phantasms, but more surreal to see these places like Manassas and Bull Run, these sites known for unfathomable violence, be converted into soccer fields where middle schoolers practice drills.
Even when I try to connect with it, I know I think of the Civil War as distant, and therefore harmless. But poems like “Tour” make its carnage more direct, recent and frightening than I’ve ever felt about it: “You are standing at the historic fence line / Hurting so familiar as though from another life / The morning of the battle was hot and still / My brother is dead now, but once he found a thighbone or femur… / I was a soccer player at Bull Run Regional Park / when my brother found a thighbone or femur / Two hundred yards to your left… I will let his ghost tell his story.” The perspective of a child—and not only a child, but a child who draws themself as a wolf, often curled up and crying, apologizing to the ghosts—makes this all the more intense. There’s something soft and a little helpless about our speaker.
In fact, her guilt is one of the most compelling elements here. There’s so much violence in our past, and, especially for people who connect with others very deeply, very softly, sometimes we get very overwhelmed. We’re guilty for the world our ancestors built for us, intending our dominion. We apologize, thinking sometimes it numbs the pain for others, or ourselves.
The irony of playing a game that mimics war at a historic battle site isn’t missed by Haldeman. On page 38, our speaker states: “The same concepts of ‘otherness’ that are necessary for warfare reverberated through our own games. There was a type of rigid tribalism that demanded unfaltering loyalty. To question it was dangerous.”
Still, I had to wonder at the time if an important part of the conversation was missing. It’s evident that nationalism played a role in the civil war, and that such violence was only possible through othering. But I questioned whether it would take this conversation to the most completely othered group of people in the war: those enslaved. I’m skeptical of the idea that any war is glorious. Every war is a tragedy. The Civil War is hardly different. But, there is a necessary aspect to it: the Confederacy was built around continuing a system of unchecked power for those responsible for unimaginable human suffering. Ending that system, even if the Union at the time and now is hardly without fault, is an unquestionable good.
Without discussing slavery, the Civil War does not exist. Though, with that said, our suffering is not a competition. This is a story of childhood trauma. It never helps someone going through something like that to say that other people had it worse.
I immersed myself in the narrative, and dove even deeper inside, finding its visuals lovely and poems often stunning. You can almost imagine, as you read poems like “Speed is a Coma” and “Team Keep Sleep,” the ghosts of the armies cheering for the kids, bloody with the fluids of the enemy. “Field Trip” is similarly so—so sharp and consequential: “I tried to head the ball, but I headed her face. / Her nose became streamers. / Barely able to move in my guilt. / No one blamed me while her streamers collected. / I and her and me and she all pronouns.” I love its impact, and its violence, and its terror at its violence and its tears.
I fell into the book's art: its grim, brambled forest, like a ghostly fairy tale; the mint-hued, formless ghosts that swim towards our speaker. I like the spirit of the ghost house set above the real one all in black and white, before it “died,” and absolutely love the visuals as a means of storytelling, wherein we see someone moving through the house towards the bedroom, only to realize we’ve been seeing the perspective of a ghost. Then, seeing our main character awake in bed, the advice of doctors failing to help her understand or process or shoulder the pain of the ghosts, makes for an emotional scene. We see her shiver.
I just want to hold her.
Then, just after this, and by surprise, we see Lauren grow up. And from this point on, the book changes a lot. By page 82, our speaker’s an adult. She isn’t helpless anymore. And something else quite interesting happens: she talks about the ghost house again, the one from earlier. She realizes something, and we realize it with her: the house belonged to James Robinson: a farmer, entrepreneur, and freedman: “He was married to Susan Gaskins, but since Susan was a slave when their children were born, by law their children were also slaves.”
We’re talking about slavery now.
I won’t go into too much detail because this is my favorite section and I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that the speaker goes through the pain of memory and perspective, and tells the story of creating works that grapple with those things.
But take comfort in knowing that the obfuscation is deliberate.
The site of the ghost house was the home of a freed Black man, an enslaved Black woman, and their family. Before the war, and during the ongoing tragedy before the war: during the taking of their sons, as they had been born into slavery and therefore legally defined as property and sold. Before the act of arson burned their house: “The Robinson house endured both the first and second battles of Bull Run. Yet, of all the buildings on this federally protected property, only the Robinson house was burnt down by an arsonist.”
Though I’d like the speaker to use enslaved as an adjective and not slave as a noun, I think the inclusion of it here, right as Haldeman’s sleight of hand makes you almost think she hasn’t considered it a factor, is brilliant. “I felt punched in the gut,” Lauren says. “And how had I not seen this before? How had I been so unaware of these basic facts?”
In an age where school boards across the nation are refusing to look upon the blood pools of our past and of our present, this and its accompanying blackout poems are the most emotional segments of the piece. “The history has been erased,” our speaker says. “And the need to erase it had been so great, that someone had literally removed the house from view.” I was, by our author’s design, skeptical of what Team Photograph had to say about the Civil War. I now realize it’s far more nuanced than I imagined. More wide-scale in its empathy.
This segment features Lauren grappling with ways to talk about the tragedy: to uplift it and to prompt discussion of it without appropriating it or exploiting its memories. She resolves to begin by making blackout poems from the newspaper that talked about the burning of the house. The final poem from this segment is one of the most powerful: it not only responds to the current lack of action by our government in protecting the lives and liberties of Black Americans, but reframes the Civil War itself: “National / officials are trying to deter- / mine whether / black people / are / valuable / free.”
We live in an era of mass incarceration and free prison labor at the expense of overpoliced Black, Latino, and working class White communities across the nation. We live in an era of every police officer serving as judge, jury, and executioner. We live in an era where state and local governments are banning books because they’re too ashamed to take a long, unclouded look back at our history, too defensive to acknowledge that the world they helped create is one of suffering. We live in the era of government officials failing the people they’re sworn to protect.
In 2020, I was tear gassed. In 2020, I was chased with batons for marching in the street. In 2020, I saw people beaten by police. And I was fast enough, and likely white enough, to not be hurt most times. And here we are, still fighting the same battles that we were back in the 60s. Not just the 1960s but the 18fucking60s. The same battles: again, again, again. Manassas. Washington. Minneapolis. Bull Run. Montgomery. Portland. Shiloh. Selma. Saint Louis. Antietam. Birmingham. Louisville.
At least I know we’ve never been alone. Reader, I know the dam will break again. Until all people are uplifted, we will fight. I know it would be relevant if published anywhere, but I keep thinking, How appropriate it is that Team Photograph was published by a press based out of Louisville. I’m thankful for this thoughtful, melancholy, ultimately hopeful book. Team Photograph is a shiver in the coldness of the night as we await the warm dawn of the nation. I feel, as I am writing this, that Haldeman and I are here huddled together, singing songs like “We Shall Overcome,” as we await the rising of the sun. Thank you for the lovely book, Lauren. As you write in “Time Fuse,” “it is delicious being seen.”
Get your copy of Team Photograph today.