Gallowglass received the 2011 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Bronze Award
Tichy is a poet embedded: with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, twined together through history; in the landscape disrupted by war, perseverating on a deer killed by a mountain lion, or hearing direction in birdsong; and in the language of war—“gallowglass” is a corruption of a Gaelic word for “mercenary soldier,” and dark, ancient ballads appear like forensic evidence. Surrounded by cultural touchstones from Pythagoras to the Grateful Dead, Tichy refuses to let the reader’s gaze, or her own, turn from the violence of modern living.
“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. Written mostly in couplets or single-line stanzas, the poems retain formal composure and imagistic clarity even as they cross, moment to moment, the permeable borders between private memory and public record, elegy and war. Unsettling both our comfort and our aesthetic expectations, Tichy superimposes Iraq and Afghanistan on Vietnam, birdsong and ballad and art on recent history. It is difficult to think of another poet who uses experimentation to such fine and expansive purpose. An exquisitely challenging book.” —Martha Collins
for Clea Koff
Fish vertebrae imbedded in sand
Tarmac compressed by the weight of tanks
Perfectly readable, yes, though you can’t lift it
Find the fingernails of this one
Scattered loose on the clothing of that one
‘If you clear vegetation wherever you find human bones
You will make a desert’
Skeleton found on top of a coffin
Illuminator’s puzzle book
Made for one who already knows it by heart
What can you use?
A root means fit together, and a root means arm
A shark tail with its whole spine
I pick it up but can’t explain it
Packed so tightly into a church
When they died they did not fall down
Fingers, house keys, clothing, hair
Two or three hundred excited gulls
In the air above some trees
‘My dream about the man who woke up’
‘Machete cuts in the doors’
Copyright © 2010 by Susan Tichy
“The dualities of the text—the private vs. the public, the seen vs. the unseen, what is missing (the title of one of the poems) and what is not—constitute, perhaps, the heart of Gallowglass and hold the key to the meaning locked within. And the ballad tradition—an oral medium in which the malleability of language and meaning becomes apparent as words morphs over time—acts as a subtle yet ever-present backdrop: just as violence in the ballad form is masked with the bucolic, these poems reflect a world in which the beauty and elusiveness of language acts like a scrim, concealing brutality and death deep beneath its soothing veil.” —Mike Maggio in The Montserrat Review
“What does it mean to witness? What becomes of the object of an unsustained inquiry? Gallowglass, Susan Tichy’s fourth book of poems, tries for answers. It’s an afterwards-document of calamity and of a loss of understanding, charged with elegiac grief for one lost and with an enervated sadness at our country’s role in terrible violence in the Middle East. Gallowglass attempts an ecological, rather than phenomenological, understanding of its subjects. When their material is emotionally severe or politically charged, many poets who use disjunctive forms are tempted to arrange the material into post-Romantic fragmentary flashes, self-dissolution, and apotheosis. . . . The subjects of Gallowglass are about as severe and charged a project as a contemporary lyric collection could attempt — but, to Tichy’s credit, Gallowglass represents a rigorous effort to deal with systems (of society and nature) over sensations. The book wants to show us something.” —Jay Thompson in Jacket2
“Elegy’s heart is no museum in which the loved and lost person and/or world are placed in the airless confines of perfect witness; elegy’s heart is a wound. 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, and 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. Susan Tichy’s is a poetry that say it is ongoing, it is going on, continually, all of it—pain and wonder, world and word, they are not relics when they are wounded, not debris though disparate. These are poems of startling intimacy, poems whose courage is not in girding courage together, but in loosening it, opening it, showing how the personal is no refuge, but is instead the very place in which history and self converge into a complicated and complicit consciousness. The personal wound embraces the general one, as the singular heart contains, impossibly, paradoxically, the universal one. I have seldom read poems of such heart, such envisioned heart. What fills it isn’t simply blood, nor simply blood spilt—that history that is our current moment too. It is bird-song and bullet simultaneous. It is the poet’s mouth that opens and is at once both lament and praise, offering back to the world—and so to us—the experience of itself, of ourselves in it. Tichy’s poetry is affirming in just this sense (it might not feel like affirmation): it says I am here, living in what I live through, and if I am, then so are you. This harsh inclusion, it is the necessary one.” —Dan Beachy-Quick
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 (which I still have) 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 an addictive drug. 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 in Plainfield, VT, 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 focus 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, strong accentual rhythms, and dense sound.
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 fulltime for six years, sans electricity, running water, or telephone… though we did have the world’s smallest Amnesty International group. 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 sold something or other to pay for plane tickets and 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 size 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. 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 of the 1960s and 70s. 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 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 in the following year to rewrite it. During that struggle, I began writing poems about Michael’s death, searching through language for a way to escape 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.
Since the publication of A Smell of Burning I have taught in the MFA program at George Mason University in Virginia, always returning to the mountains when I am not in the classroom. Aside from poetry workshops, I teach modern and contemporary poetry, with particular interests in women Modernist and avant-garde poets, poetic form, sequence and collage, visual poetry, war poetry, “the poem including history,” and Scottish poetry. Aside from war poets, those who recur most frequently in my courses are Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, Semezdin Mehmedinovic, and the Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay.
In the mid-1990s I began what I thought would be a chapbook, called An Autobiography of Imperialism. It became, instead, a long-term, book-length project—Trafficke: An Autobiography, a mixed-genre meditation (verse, prose, collage) on the myths of family and national history and on the power of literacy. Drawing on nearly two hundred sources, Trafficke hunts and incorporates traces of a family history from the 6th century Scottish Highlands to the displacement of Natives and beginnings of slavery in early Maryland. The family is mine; the story both historical and mythic, collective and intensely personal, a traffic in land, language, lives, slaves, and tobacco. Several sections of Trafficke have been published, and in 1999 an excerpt was chosen by Douglas Messerli for the annual Prose Award from Quarter After Eight. I’m sure it will be finished, one day.
Gallowglass is a book about grief, both public and private; it asks how to grieve in a history and a culture so permeated with images of imperialism and war. I wrote these poems under the profound influence of Scottish traditional songs and ballads, which cast their resistance to war in the form of lament—for the dead, the maimed, the recruited, and the left behind—and whose multiple versions, moveable verses, and shifting speakers prefigure the rich, communal aspects of collage.
“Gallowglass” is an Anglicized form of the Gaelic gal-óglac (Irish: gallóglaich) a foreign soldier or mercenary. The sequence of ghazals from which the book takes its title tracks this figure in forms both linguistic and human: in the foreign combatants of Iraq and Afghanistan; in words and phrases misplaced, made “foreign” through collage; and in the life and death of my husband, who returned to Vietnam thirty years after he fought there, and who also traveled, in his restless, post-war years, through all the desert countries our military currently occupies. “American Ghazals,” I call them, because I wish to acknowledge the occupation of foreign soil, and because, let’s face it, they are to real ghazals what American cheese is to real cheese. I built the poems from the onslaught of media images and from my own memories—over-stimulated by my husband’s death and the new wars—but lightened the work, depersonalized it, with procedural rules for the inclusion and exclusion of images.
Collage allows images to become a way of thinking, and in Gallowglass, part of my thinking is about images themselves. Are the immanence and autonomy we assign to poetic images distinguishable from the perpetual framing and reframing of mediated images? Both pass before us in an unending stream of transformation, blurring categories of time, place, and possession, wearing away, as Lao Tzu says, into completion. Is a Taoist reality of presentation commensurate with the phantasmagoria of representation that now passes for information? Can we live in that stream of images while resisting their imperialist claim of universal access to others’ experience? I have tried in Gallowglass to model some possibilities. In collage every juncture can feel like conflict; but its gaps also let in the light: transformation, detachment, and the possibility of creative error. The transcendence offered is metonymic—social and communal, rather than metaphysical, the private embedded in the public.
After the ghazals, the “Crossed Roads” of section two occupy a less predictable formal landscape, overloaded with intersections and distances, because, as one reader said to me, “War moves things around in weird ways.” Some of the images moved around have already been woven through the ghazals: tea, animals, birds and bird-song, mountain paths, news-talk, ballads, weapons, bodies and body parts, vehicles, buildings, pairs of opposites, pairs of complements, definitions, mistakes, substitutions, guitars. Encounter is key, as is “checkpoint etiquette,” both military and supernatural; but so too is seeking—in the characters of a war photographer, a forensic anthropologist, a camp survivor recording birdsong, an assembler of broken artifacts, a song sparrow eating “what the other birds kick down.”
In the third section, “Trebuchet”, that assembler of artifacts has her say. Inspired by and partially collaged from Rhonda Shearer’s forensic examination of Marcel Duchamp’s Trébuchet series of readymade hat and coatracks, the poem investigates complex relationships among representation, readability, deception and self-deception. Duchamp announced his Readymades as unaltered objects of art, not works of art, created by selection and framing alone. On that claim rest generations of work making art as an act of perception, not a thing. But Duchamp was a trickster, and Shearer claims his photographs weren’t innocent. If he cut and pasted, made and remade, finally reframing them as representations of pure, found objects, what act of perception are we talking about? What faith? And how, now, would we know a real object if we saw one? My “Trebuchet” sets out to investigate and to reconstruct a body, composed not from objects, but from representations of objects: the broken and photographed bodies of Abu Ghraib, framed (or constructed) as terrorists; the lost, broken, and yet still catalogued objects of Iraq’s looted museums, framed (and reconstructed) as treasures; the psyches of soldiers catalogued in a US Army manual of field psychology, (deconstructed) and framed as data. The assembler, of course, has “only forged what is.”
The book’s last transition is its most extreme, from the greatest distance to an absolute lack of distance. One reader of Gallowglass said the first three sections were constantly asking “How do you look at the dead? How do you show them?” and the last section answered “Like this.” In “Book Land Night,” my husband’s death, half-told in the ghazals, returns as the overwhelming fact. In “Gallowglass” and “Crossed Roads,” personal images are used like any other material, separable from their contexts, so I am more instrument than source. In the three poems of “Book Land Night” all images are personal, drawn from memory or from dream; yet they are not detached from the other poems. I know when I turned from these to the first of the ghazals I felt I was keeping all the same elements in play, merely displacing the personal from center stage to chorus. War, birds, body parts, tea, “the rescue of dead men”—all recur here. Most different, I suppose, is the setting of mountains—where we lived and where he died—though nowhere is the story fully told. What happened happened, but the action of collage makes it not so much a narrative as a way to live: not grief and then recovery, but a constantly recurring consciousness. How to grieve—moment by moment—and how, moment by moment, to let grief go. That sounds glib as I type it, but I typed very slowly in those days.