Critical Commentary

On North|Rock|Edge

A warning serves as bedrock ethic for Susan Tichy's North|Rock|Edge: "Beware a thought / untaught by walking." Perhaps it is a poem's unique power to warn us against its own nature—the language can make of itself a world that supersedes the fact of the real one. Tichy will have none of it. Hers is a poetry that learns to think only by what the world offers as thinkable, the mineral fact of rock, the infinite force of ocean, and the contemplative strife of those potencies colliding. Any thought not engendered by such encounter isn't to be trusted—a thing the mind can do merely by itself. But what experience gives us is its own epistemology, a perception not of landscape, but landscape as perception. —Dan Beachy-Quick

North|Rock|Edge continues Susan Tichy's commitment to thinking on foot, to making poetic language immersive and bound to the ecological specifics of place. Here her poiesis takes shape in the ecotone between dune and sea, on the rocky shores and at the wrack-lines of the Shetland Islands. The resulting poems reflect the never-ending flux and eternal contingency of tidal places; choppy waves of fluent musical phrasing get caught up in jump-cuts before vanishing into salt-tinged white space. Over the arc of this remarkable book, reading Shetland with body and mind transforms into a nearly apophatic "transcorporeal" ecstasy as chill and wind-blown and total as the elements themselves. —Brian Teare

On The Avalanche Path in Summer

Wrought from deep reading and long intimate acquaintance with the southern Rocky Mountains, this book-length series of meditations splices the choicest passages from its chosen archive of mountain literature with the embodied knowledge that arises from living in a place whose scale far exceeds the human. Condensed into tight musical lines, the resulting poems are as ribbed by pressure as orogenic uplift, and as clear to the eye as streams fed by snowmelt. Taken together, they posit a kind of mountain epistemology as relational and contingent as weather, a way of knowing that’s site specific, seasonal, and alert to injury and mortality. I’ve always been awed by the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral power of Susan Tichy’s rigorous poems – with The Avalanche Path I can add that I’m awed by their physical vulnerability, acute ecological observation, and spiritual wisdom. —Brian Teare

Her working of line throughout [some] pieces give her poems a slow careful movement, reminiscent of Lorine Niedecker. Tichy employs a “not this, but that” chiasmic construction throughout the book, [which] seems to demonstrate her claim that “at every switchback, the view changes.” Her…constructions create a shifting world, where everything becomes something else, multiplying meaning and destabilizing our senses. She creates an avalanche of phrases that are connected but ever-moving, like mountains themselves, “backwards as forwards / long slopes of debris.” – Tracy Zeman, The Colorado Review

The poet juxtaposes her own phrases and narratives alongside fragments from British sources such as John Ruskin, Nan Shepherd, and Robert Macfarlane, and lines of Chinese poetry in the Daoist and Buddhist traditions. While its syncretism may recall Gary Snyder, this book privileges body over text, “One foot/ in front of the other foot, crossing the force// of stunted bristlecone.” The poem functions as a seismograph, as if both the terrain and the human body that scrabbles over its surfaces and missteps occasionally (“Palm-path-pain/ step-stop-stipple,”) are as fragile and as contingent as the pages we hold in our hands, “memorizing the slope like a book I know/ will burn.” – Publisher’s Weekly

On Trafficke

Yeats orders others to “cast a cold eye”; Susan Tichy teaches herself to sustain “the long gaze of the vanishment.” By pursuing her family history into vanishment, Tichy’s Trafficke discovers the backstory behind the backstory. By listening both to “something my mother told me” and to “something she never told me,” Tichy makes her gaze not cold, as Yeats instructs, but hard. She achieves the “rash exactitude” that makes hers “the gaze / swept backward into pure rock.” Trafficke is lithic and windswept, not so much written as hewn. – Harvey Hix

“If ignorance is innocence / all is true all is false.” Thus Trafficke plows under the surface of our collective amnesia and unearths a family past—beginning in Reformation Scotland, ending in slavery’s abolition in Maryland—that is our American past. History and myth, treachery and self-preservation, prose and verse collide and change places, caught in the dialectic eddies and splinters of Tichy’s luminous formal inventions. This is work of piercing lyric intelligence and fearless heart. Trafficke changes all the rules. – Peter Streckfus

Tichy’s tact is towards the preservation of lost voices across “a dissident topography”...“not found on earlier maps under any name.” I am doing some radical stitching in this quotation but do so in the spirit of this volume which stitches so many disparate elements—etymologies, languages (Irish/Scottish Gaelic, Latin, Restoration-era English, among many others), genres, and biographies—and then refuses to make them cohere. A failure? Yes, gloriously; any other refining, resolving, streamlining, or bonding would be too easy and inaccurate. As Tichy instructs: “Ah, but never trust a fair copy, words by which the violence of revision is concealed” (Those two italicized words are a history and moral conundrum unto themselves!). This explorer of history is an empiricist, though not completist, urging any discerning wanderer across thickets of text and actual thickets in one’s midst to “Go back along the drove roads, test the difference: mountains, or a view of the mountains…” This kind of instruction…is basically an operator’s manual for how to understand poetry and history, a valuable twofer whatever the poem or history. – Jon Curley, Galatea Resurrects

Read an excerpt from Trafficke + poetics statement on The Volta / Evening Will Come (2013)

On Gallowglass:

Elliptical and allusive, brilliant and disturbing, Susan Tichy’s Gallowglass raises the art of collage that defined her earlier Bone Pagoda to a new level of richness and complexity… It is difficult to think of another poet who uses experimentation to such fine and expansive purpose. An exquisitely challenging book. – Martha Collins

I’ve never encountered a poetics so sustainedly hypnotic, like a malarial fever trance. The fever is our collective memory of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, wave after wave afflicting our efforts to carry on our lives, a past that wells up in us when we least expect it. – Djelloul Marbrook, Galatea Resurrects

Perhaps this poet’s gift to us who read her is not in learning how to heal but in learning how to dwell–the wound being this place of dwelling, the woundedness a form of initiation. Wound is the paradoxical gift, opening one to the same world, the continuing experience of the world, which causes the damage. – Dan Beachy-Quick

On Bone Pagoda:

In these incisive poems, Susan Tichy explores Vietnam—the war and the country. She has a keen eye, and her perceptual clusters are widened and deepened by sharp moments of recognition. “Someone had drawn red circles / where his eyes would be,” she writes of a man who begs on the steps of a pagoda. Just as the circles “make a place to look,” so these poems make a haunting place from which to see. – Arthur Sze

Yes, it’s about war and her latterly late husband’s role in it. But it’s also about her youthful fight against it and their return to its theatre, guided by the wisdom of maturity... It’s about the process of writing and the use of language…
It’s about loyalty and exposure. It’s about humanity and inhumanity. It’s about individual struggle and collective responsibility. It’s about the personal and public. It’s really about everything. – John Mingay, Stride Magazine (UK)

I know no other poetry so rigorous in disciplining its language, its syntax, its very music to honor “the first and final location of every war: the body.” –Marion Stocking, Beloit Poetry Journal .