Rigorously interrogating three hundred years of family history in Scotland and Maryland, Trafficke tracks and remixes questions of race and identity, fact and legend into a mosaic of verse, lyric prose, historical narrative, and quotation. As it strips away the glamour—in the old Scottish sense of a spell, an illusion—Trafficke takes shape not as a simple uncovering of truth, but as a dis-spelling, a building and tearing down of identity’s various disguises, of power’s relentless self-justification, of the poet’s own bitterness and complicity. Stepping forward and backward in time, sampling texts that range from 16th-century Gaelic poetry to runaway slave advertisements, Tichy’s narrative pulls readers through a many-layered critique of ownership and the timeless seduction of beauty. Violence and language, literacy and desire—these too are characters in the lyrical, fraught, and grief-charged text of 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 invention. This is work of piercing lyric intelligence and fearless heart. Trafficke changes all the rules.” —Peter Streckfus
Exile a meadow of equal
This matter of altering boundaries
whereof nine-tenths of them have died
That noe Contest may arise concerning my will
Landing places for goods
warrior counts for both sides of the river
Or, the survivor of them
Affirm that before the arrival broke out amongst them
measles smallpox indemnity
five hundred fishing ships a year
And lawful to trafficke
Now learn strength of arms, perswade myself
(as dies in hissing gore the spark)
I entered the woods and discovered nine trees in ten had been cut down
that you wreste no worde from his natural sounde
Let us take the forde as we find it
To examine village sites on both sides of the river
difficult to conceal less than
Courage answers edges unworked
postmolds detected failed to yield
complexity dense defied attempts
The soil of an huge and unknown greatnesse
Very well peopled and towned though savagelie
where it meanders
Refugium for those displaced
palisaded towns implied confirmed
corn beans squash: the trinity
And sunlight, when it came altogether desire
ten thousand geese on a river of pollen: spring
Copyright © 2015 by Susan Tichy
I was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Maryland—one foot in the empire and one in the greenwood. Our house was full of all things Scottish, so I knew traditional Scottish ballads from infancy. My sense of poetry is rooted in their idiosyncratic mix of elegant form and mortal stakes, as is my sense of poetry’s inherently political nature. Thanks to one bohemian aunt our house was also full of books, among them The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. This anthology was designed for children, (big pages, lots of illustrations) but filled with real poems from Chaucer to the 1950s. There I first read Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, the Brownings, Dickinson, Whitman, John Clare, as well as Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot, cummings, Roethke, and Bishop. When I was fourteen, I discovered Dylan Thomas, and, like many young poets before and since, learned from him that language could be addictive. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti followed, but a bigger epiphany was Paul Carroll’s anthology, The Young American Poets, published when I was sixteen. These were poets only a few years older than I; their biographies informed me that a person could get a degree in writing poetry; and their poems said the inner and outer lives could actually meet somewhere in contemporary vernacular. A few of these poets were (like the great majority of ballad singers) female.
In my teens, I was a small but active cog in the antiwar machinery in Washington, and my first poems were published in The Quicksilver Times, an underground newspaper, which I also sold on the street. I graduated from high school in 1970, and attended Macalester College in St. Paul. While a student, I helped to found one of St. Paul’s many communes, and soon left college to work in a community clinic and an inner city high school. I finished my BA in 1975 at Goddard College, and my M.A. at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1979. In 1977 I spent four months picking fruit, painting fences, and herding cattle on an Israeli kibbutz on the Golan Heights, which became the locus of my first book, The Hands in Exile. This manuscript was chosen by Sandra MacPherson for inclusion in the National Poetry Series and was published by Random House. It also received a Eugene Kayden Award. The poet who most visibly influenced this book was Yehuda Amichai, but I was also paying close attention to Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, and Gary Snyder. All my early work was influenced by Snyder’s outdoor ethic, Zen humor, and the strong accentual rhythms and dense sound of his early poems.
In the early 1980s, I married Michael O’Hanlon, a Vietnam combat veteran who was a Colorado native and a mountaineer. We designed and built a cabin in Rosita, a silver-mining ghost town in the southern Colorado Rockies, and lived there full-time for six years, sans electricity, running water, or telephone. In later years, we owned a bookstore in Westcliffe, the nearest town, and were board members for a local land trust working to protect open land from development. In 1985, when Michael was working on a semi-autobiographical novel set in the Philippines, we spent a month in Tarlac Province, P.I., researching its political history and the human rights catastrophes of the 1970s. I subsequently learned that my great-great uncle had been military commander of Tarlac in the most brutal phase of the Philippine-American War, at the turn of the 20th century. Thus did a few poems started in a hotel in Tarlac City grow into my second book, A Smell of Burning Starts the Day, published by Wesleyan University Press in 1988. My essay, “Forms of Temptation,” describes the writing of these poems.
During those years I read a great deal of poetry in translation, looking for a breadth of subject I hadn’t found in American poetry. Amichai and Hikmet remained important; Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniev Herbert were essential; and a host of others—Janos Pilinsky, Ingeborg Bachman, Anna Akhmatava, and Ernesto Cardenal, among them—taught me the true weight of the 20th century and the shifting possibilities of political insight in poetry.
Most of what I know about war, however, I learned by living with a combat veteran for twenty-five years. The essential thing was that the war never went away, for either of us; nor could it ever be reduced to a single narrative. So once it was possible to travel to Vietnam, we did. Michael went alone the first time, in 1998; in 2000, he and I spent a month traveling there. In the northwest mountains, near China, he climbed Fan Si Pan, the tallest peak in Southeast Asia, while I took easier treks through farms and villages surrounding the town of Sapa. In the south, we traveled mostly by motorized sampan, with a boatman and interpreter, visiting rivers, canals, and towns where Michael had fought with the Navy’s River Assault Force in 1968 and 69. On return, I began rereading memoirs and histories of the war, on both sides, and of resistance to the war. I reread every issue of The Quicksilver Times, as well as my own diaries. When I googled The Quicksilver Times I discovered that one of the staff members, whom I had dated for a while when I was 17, was later unmasked as a CIA spy, sent to the QT to uncover vast sums of Chinese money Nixon believed was funding the paper. (Alas, there was none.) In the Fall of 2001 I was in northern Virginia, teaching, and had just begun work on Bone Pagoda, when the WTC and Pentagon were attacked. I wrote the first draft of perhaps half the book in the months of insomnia that followed, through the bombing of Afghanistan and the anthrax attacks. I finished that draft the following summer, in Scotland. In between, Michael and I had traveled to Montana, then across the whole southern U.S., visiting the graves of young men killed in the River Assault Force. Within a month of my return from Scotland, Michael fell to his death while descending a mountain peak near our home in Colorado.
After his death, the first thought I had about Bone Pagoda was that I would have to abandon it; but I gradually formed a new, more elegiac, idea of the book and began to rewrite it. During that struggle, I began writing poems about Michael’s death, searching through language for a way to escape, or at least to complicate, the monotonous narcissism of grief. These poems became the root of Gallowglass, which took hold over the next few years, as dead bodies accumulated in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as US veterans began to return—young gallowglass for whom few seemed to be grieving.
But long before Gallowglass, and even before Bone Pagoda, there was Trafficke. I began it in 1994, and thought it might stretch to the length of a chapbook. It became, instead, a book-length project of narrative and collage, centered around the double identity—Scottish and American—of my earliest immigrant ancestor, Alexander McGruther/Magruder. By the end of the decade the book was finished—and immediately laid aside. Those were the years of the internet’s rapid expansion, and from online forums I had learned that a core narrative of my Magruder/McGruther history—our descent from Clan Gregor, the Highlands’ most storied and persecuted clan—was most likely false. Don McGruther, a researcher in Scotland, had been, for some years, methodically searching public records, assembling a picture of the family’s early history. Having set out to prove the MacGregor connection, he instead wound up disproving it. At the same time, DNA testing was coming into its own. Don and a few American Magruders had been tested and results showed no significant match with well-established Clan Gregor markers.
For Trafficke, the news was devastating: half its story had been swept away. For me, however, though the loss was painful it was not wholly unexpected. Oral tradition of Clan Gregor descent is strong among American Magruders, but of evidence there is none. As I wrote for an interview in Quiddity: “This had always felt like a blind spot right at the heart of the book. And Clan Gregor history—which is breathtakingly violent and romantic, but also a rat’s nest of political intrigue—had absorbed too much of the book’s energy. So part of me felt abandoned, but another part felt freed. That too-bright light had been switched off and suddenly there were whole new vistas.”
Why did Magruders in America believe they were MacGregors? And how long had they believed it? How did the MacGregor story of displacement and persecution—at times even genocide—become central to the identities of families who were largely Southern, land-owning, and slave-holding? I knew at once that there was a relationship, that the Clan Gregor story had in some way redeemed, in their minds, both the shameful truth that their wealth and well-being depended on enslaved labor and the violent death of that privilege in the Civil War. Thus was Trafficke reborn, its critique of power even more bitter than before, still thoroughly entangled with the beauties and instabilities of language, with literacy as a profession, with the lure of the antique, and with deepest questions of identity.
Built from the bottom up, with scraps and pebbles, rhymes and rhythms, Trafficke’s earliest draft was an orgy of language. Yet it quickly evolved beyond pure lyric, driven by a need for something more/else/other. It needed narrative—or at least a narrative platform on which a reader could stand (in both senses) to hear the singing. This was the origin ofTrafficke’s mixed form: the need to reveal, rather than conceal, the complex particulars of history, while, at the same time, preserving a space for lyric as a mode of inquiry, a way of listening.
As narrative cohered, fragmented, then reassembled, Trafficke revealed itself as a quest not simply for knowable truths, but for an expanded willingness to know—a willingness ever in conflict with the limits of what we can know: what details can be rescued, and, ultimately, what each of us is capable of knowing. The deconstruction of family legends; the intimate reality of slavery; the long connection of literacy with power—in both a destructive and a liberating sense—: all are saturated with violence, and make us cry out for sanctuary, for an art that can turn chaos into order, suffering into beauty. For some, historical narrative is that comforting structure, a knowable frame; for others, lyric provides a refuge from history, a way out of torturous questions and worse answers. Readers of Trafficke may cling to one or the other. For me, the two forms conspired to offer, but then withdraw, such solace, as each shape-shifted into the other, finding and forcing a way to move on.
My hope for this text is that neither the hierarchies of narrative nor the immanence of lyric can be wholly or solely true. Prose sentences break away, sinkholes open up in recited facts; while in verse, fragmented lines may pull apart or cohere unpredictably into narrative calm. Littered with traces, with voices, with paths that appear and disappear before they can be followed, just as they do in a partial (partial in both senses) historical record, the text builds a reading of that record, its necessity and its unreliability. Around and across the visible generic boundary grows the more fundamental dialectic, the constant movement and transformation of one truth into another, each image, each fact, each statement, silence, lie, metaphor, or memory as particular and historically situated/saturated as the next.
This is how Trafficke came to occupy so much of my life—so many years, so many bookshelves and notebooks and used-up hard drives. Are there two hundred sources? Three? More? What if I count each poem, each scribbled receipt in a legal record, each emailed question answered by a generous stranger? I could count pilgrimage itself a source, a practice. Or count each place, each icon, each flat tire and change of weather. And does one landscape matter more than the others? Those Scottish farms and depopulated glens, or St. Mary’s City, with its excavations and ghost frames? A boat-launch, or the industrial park overwhelming a family graveyard? Perhaps a housing development, whose streets are named for Magruder farms? As sources, are these less or more important than manuscripts at the Scottish National Library? Or the wills and inventories, land and court records, slave lists and deeds of manumission housed and indexed at the Maryland Hall of Records?
Whether writing Trafficke or writing about it, I find myself lost in such catalogs—in lists, images, glimpses. Two hundred sources, perhaps, are quoted, their words both colliding and colluding. Remix can elide context, but not entirely and not in this text. This texture, this play, this cutting in and out of clarity and complication, enacts my experience of the violently public yet delicately personal nature of identity in our nation’s half-erased, half-invented, and heavily racialized history.
Am I here? Am I in this book? Sometimes, or always, depending on who I think I am. The I of Trafficke slips in and out, sometimes arm-in-arm with a reader, sometimes hiding behind or emerging from other voices—heavy with tone, yet taking every possible path of escape. Like so many American texts, Trafficke re-enacts the undoing of innocence, a tradition indebted not only to Edenic fantasy, but to white culture’s recurring discovery and dramatization of the Other as a missing cipher.
For a long time the book had a sub-title: An Autobiography. I wanted that phrase to position me as one of the lucky ones, who, in James Baldwin’s terms, understood the price of the ticket to white America. I wanted to confront a reader, force reconsideration of the raw materials from which identity is made, and strip away my own alibi for the years of unknowing, an unknowing to which I half-knowingly consented—as if we are not responsible to history, and it is not responsible for us. The selection of particular examples from a large group is always a social act, says Susan Howe. If nothing else, Trafficke is a social act.