Jon Curley reviews
Trafficke by Susan Tichy
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2015)
A fusion of forms, a panoply of patterns, and a dense historical underlay—dispersed, fragmented, voluminous, at times vertiginous—are the structural ingredients of Susan Tichy’s fifth collection Trafficke. Fortunately, this exhaustive traffic of terrain, narrative, and ethical insight into imperialism, colonialism, immigration, and memory never gets congested even if it sometimes overwhelms. A succinct statement of guiding principle arrives early on in a couplet as profound as it is short: “New carpentry old hinges // History begins where it changes” So this is a historical poetic narrative of a sort but one so diffuse and messy (in a preferred way) that those old hinges are going to buckle then break, and multiple histories will blast any conceptual door down and away. Amen.
The starting point to this long poem—almost two hundred pages and constructed and shaped over two decades—is the fate through movement of a Scottish ancestor, Alexander MacGregor (among cited spellings) who immigrated to Maryland in the 17th Century. This figure in particular is no monumental historical figure—nor are many of the subjects cast into the dramatic traffic of this volume. But 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”; in other words, record concrete objects and the perception, singular and collectively considered, of these objects through time. This kind of instruction built in multiple itineraries through inventories is basically an operator’s manual for how to understand poetry and history, a valuable twofer whatever the poem or history.
Tichy’s construction is a contradiction—a history that seeks a reckoning with human events and natural occurrences but refuses answers or conclusions. Throughout this poetic narrative which, speaking of or in Gaelic, mimics the classical Irish poetic form of an immram, a sage blazing through adversities and attempting to navigate a lapsed world while seeking to visit and gain knowledge from a Christian underworld, Tichy espouses a clarifier and corrective to go more deeply, to visit the underworlds of untold or imagined history, to burrow into and under words to test their accuracy. An ostensible family history to chart genealogies gets caught up in a project of sentimental identifications, not mythologizing or heroicizing per se, but gauging the limits of attachment to one’s forbears, one’s own chronicle. The final lines of Traffique impacts with Donne-like bursts of violent alliteration, inquiry, and also self-awareness: “This is a blow, my genitor—my bright—my battering. I blacken myself in the transitive. Alexander, I am seeking to love you.” The poetic sequences always endear, the prose parts are essential but often so direly exhaustive (though never cloying)—but therein lies the imperative of lives filled, if not fulfilled, by all the messy, unauthoritative data of their destinies.
Jon Curley's most recent book of poems is Hybrid Moments (2015). With Burt Kimmelman, he co-edited The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory (2015). He teaches in Newark and lives in New York.