In the realm of history, Susan Tichy’s Bone Pagoda takes its title from an ossuary on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, where the bones of 3000 massacre victims are preserved. In the realm of meaning, it honors the first and final location of every war: the body. These poems are a personal journey through “Vietnam”—the country, the war, and the moral catastrophe signified by this word in American memory. They are also a formal investigation of how language behaves under pressure, both poetic and political. Collage and allusion create a conversation, a community of language by which poets, politicians, soldiers, spies, and resisters are not merely quoted, but lodged in the lyric texture of the poems. The mind’s search for truth—both to find it and to say it—is felt in the shifting rhythms of lines and couplets, in grammatical swerves and incremental changes of phrase or sound, which can also mimic the choices and chances of war.
On the steps of the pagoda
A man was begging
A man with no eyes was begging
On the steps of the pagoda
It might be fire it looks like that
It might be Willy Peter
A smooth tight kind of burning
To the bone it might be that
Someone had drawn red circles
Maybe he had drawn them
Someone had drawn red circles
Where his eyes would be
It might be lipstick it looks like that
It might be red lipstick
They make a place to look
When you are looking
A place to put your eyes
It might be that
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Tichy
“The last line [the ‘Absolute violence of our language’] appears in the final, title poem, which begins with a line from Robert Browning and ends with Emily Dickinson; the ‘He’ and ‘She’ that mark four of its five sections (with a section significantly titled and addressed to ‘Gaze’ interrupting) suggest not so much the poet and her husband as the presence of male poets such as Donne and Hopkins on the one hand, and on the other Emily Dickinson, who is both quoted and (in the word from ‘Street’) ‘disjuncted’ in the book’s final stanzas, which also reprise the line from ‘Desk and Chair’:
O dear collection of English words
Expended to accommodate
From Slack to Slave on a single page
‘War seems to me an oblique place’
In a book so filled with wounded flesh, the juxtaposition of the line about war and the line that follows is startling and disturbing, like so much that precedes it. But the beauty of language, reflected partly in the rhythms, rhymes and near-rhymes, as well as in the glimpses of poetry of the past and images of present Vietnam, also permeates Bone Pagoda. In the haunting Dickinsonian lines, and in the book itself, it is partly the ‘oblique place’ of war that is ‘Made flesh / And tremblingly’; but it is also the ‘dear collection of English words’—a collection that must include the profoundly disturbing yet wonderfully made place that is Susan Tichy's book.” —from the review by Martha Collins in Field
“What I encountered with Susan Tichy’s two part collection, Bone Pagoda, was page after page of pirouetting lines and phrases, collaged from a spectrum of documentary and anecdotal sources that lent the collection expansive, intelligent and, in many ways, playfully crafted qualities. . . . 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.
“Yet, it’s much more than being about anything. It’s a journey through rhythms that mesmerise, language that blinds and emotions that are real and raw. It’s pure poetry.
And my Willy Peter burns to the bone he
Sticks like shit to a blanket is
What they say they say as they
Descend the planes
Almost low enough to see my
Aine William sweet and true
My Willy sweet my only sweet and
True Willy true Willy my my-my my
Sweet my true my sweet my true
Distended and dis sended you
To baseness, yeah to business
Cat in a cage dying
Monkey in a cage dying
Toy jeeps toy tanks toy trees toy planes
And one shoots down the other
[from ‘Desk and Chair’]
Midnight at a desk
Where poems turn unbeseemingly
They say that art consoles.
“It’s one woman’s survival plan laid bare, but so much more than simple catharsis. It’s a response to the irony of having endured, shared and emerged, only then to have tragically lost.” —from the review by John Mingay (© 2007, “From Thrilling to Thrilled”) in Stride Magazine (read the entire review here).
“Strong poems about war often come decades after wars end, when poets have finally wrestled from their psyches a way to speak of their experience and when history has provided its perspectives. Bone Pagoda is a collection of such poems. . . . Twisting from self-reflective composition to reportage to eloquent sarcasm to literary allusion, the poet grapples with the unwitting collusion of poets, including herself, in the imperialist enterprise, in the erotics of violence. . . . Tichy’s reading of world literature becomes one of her strategies for conveying ‘the true size of the 20th century and the vast, shifting nature of political insight in poetry.’ In section after section of this poem she insistently and bitterly challenges herself and other poets to watch, to see with ‘an outward soul’ so that we ‘get it right.’ 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.’” —from the review by Marion Stocking in Beloit Poetry Journal.
“[Tichy] explores the stark and horrifying realities of war and its aftermath through a fierce lyricism, an insistent and bodily music that urges the reader to say these poems aloud.
“It is impossible not to read Bone Pagoda as both a poetic/personal/historical narrative and, while the US government wages another distant war, as a reminder that we are inevitably implicated in atrocities committed on our behalf. There can be no doubt at all, this book tells us, about the complex, lasting, devastating affect of American occupation on both the occupied and the occupiers; through obvious social, political, and economic links and through subtle, lasting marks in our imaginations, the two, in fact, become inextricably linked. In Bone Pagoda, Susan Tichy transforms the heroic war story, a ‘genre devoted to praise or blame,’ and re-presents as an assembly of fragments, becoming a ‘Museum devoted to catalogue / To fracture.’ The manipulated linear narrative of history books and of the day’s news reports are inadequate, false, flawed, incomplete, the poet reminds us: “The glass case is not very clean / Lean closer.’” —from the review by Nancy Kuhl in Rain Taxi Online (read the entire review here).
I was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Maryland–one foot in the empire and one in the greenwood. As a child, I was allowed to roam freely over farms and forests that were soon to disappear under malls and houses. Thanks to one bohemian aunt (whom my parents respected, though at a distance) our house was 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 written for adults, 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. (I still see “The Fish” in a bloody, page-sized drawing, whenever I read it.) All seemed equally distant from my lived life, and equally connected to my inner life. 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 language, on a page. A few of these poets—a very few—were even female.
Our house was also full of all things Scottish, so I knew traditional Scottish ballads from infancy. My sense of form begins in their idiosyncratic mix of elegant form and mortal stakes, as does my sense of poetry’s inherently political nature.
In my teens, I was a small but very 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 Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, MD, 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 the Eugene Kayden Award for Poetry. 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 sound-drenched language.
In the early 1980s, I married Michael O’Hanlon, a Vietnam combat veteran who was a Colorado native and dedicated 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. 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, so we looked like a fairly upstanding sort of neighbor. In the early years, though, we lived hand-to-mouth, Michael by working at slave wages for the local paper and I by writing genre fiction under false names. In 1983, we co-founded the world’s smallest Amnesty International group, which worked successfully for the release of a Romanian prisoner of conscience.
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, the most narrative and, despite the historical link to my family, the least personal of all my work.
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 vast, shifting nature of political insight in poetry. American political poets for the most part provided negative models, poems I did not want to emulate; but I won’t name these poets. I admire and honor them for tackling difficult subjects in a literary culture that often denigrates political content. I wouldn’t be the poet I am—perhaps not a poet at all—without their early example and without my long struggle of love, hate, and respect for their work.
Since the publication of A Smell of Burning I have taught in the MFA program at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, always returning to the mountains when I am not in the classroom. Aside from poetry workshops, at all levels, I teach modern and contemporary poetry, with particular interests in women Modernist and avant-garde poets, poetic form, sequence and collage, war poetry, “the poem including history,” and Scottish poetry. Poets who recur most often in my courses are Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Gary Snyder, Susan Howe, Harryette Mullen, and the Scottish poet and conceptual artist Ian Hamilton Finlay.
During my first years in Virginia I began to write rather differently. I was opening up my line, listening differently to language, and gradually working my way back from the short-line narrative lyric I had learned from my teachers to a wider and more inclusive aesthetic, closer in spirit to my first, untaught ideas. Focusing on the political power of representation led me to look anew at relations among lyric, narrative, and documentary impulses, and to rely on a different set of cues for readers. Individual poems from those years have been published and anthologized, but when I reread the collection in its entirety (an unpublished manuscript called "Study of Human Proportion") it appears to be what it is—the document of a transition. One clear line through these poems, however, is an ever-stronger turn toward the methods of collage, quotation, and linguistic overlap, which I had used off and on from the 1970s and particularly in “Inheritance: The Water Cure,” a sequence in A Smell of Burning Starts the Day.
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. Way back in the 80s, when I was first reading Milosz, I came on an essay about him by Patricia Hampl, in which she described his work as an effort “to use the self not as a source, but as an instrument.” I have taken that phrase as my guide, ever since, and in Trafficke I take it over the top. Drawing on, and collaging, nearly 200 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 historic and mythic, collective and intensely personal; the trafficke is 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. It is nearly finished now. Really.
Despite all else that happened in our lives, the war never really went away. Michael first returned to Vietnam 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 Micheal 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 the White House believed was funding the paper. (Alas, there was none.) In Fall of 2001 I was in Virginia, teaching, and had just begun work on Bone Pagoda’s first poems when the WTC was 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. It did not seem psychologically possible for me to continue with a project so intimately connected to Michael’s presence, in his wrenching absence. Through a series of plans, each more impossible than the last, I gradually formed a new idea of the book and began in the following year to rewrite it. The book as it stands now is greatly distilled from its origins—less cheeky, more elegiac, more drowned in itself, in its language. I wrote it to survive, and I survived. I wrote it for all those who didn’t.
In war, the slightest detail, the slimmest luck, may determine life or death, truth or lie. Those moments of choice and chance are mirrored in the poems of Bone Pagoda by shifting rhythms, incremental changes of phrase or sound, grammatical swerves. Who is speaking? What “really happens”? Which way of reading this line is true? Is a line of fishing boats, joined by nets, placed there to catch fish, or to force a gunboat to swerve into rifle range? Is smoke on the riverbank gunfire, or cookfire? Will you shoot, or risk not shooting? To be wrong either way is fatal to someone, an epistemology no combatant forgets.
My sense of war was conditioned by a quarter century with my late husband, a veteran of extensive combat in the Mekong Delta. My sense of form is conditioned by having been raised on traditional Scottish ballads—where stanza form may multiply or delay rhyme, but never escape it; and where incremental repetitions mean death and betrayal, or life and deliverance, may strike with the shift of a single word.
In our life together, the war was stories; but also, like ballads when they are sung, heard, war was embodied presence: the flinch after thunder; the instant, even heroic response to emergency; the need for emergency; the compulsive reading of history, whose huge presence could dim a personal memory down to size.
From the first day of putting ink on paper, Bone Pagoda has been permeated space: “My tongue is mine aine / But who said that.” This is an ethos; in Oppen’s words, an ethos of being numerous. My sources (one meaning: my authors, my makers) include an array of poets, politicians, soldiers, spies, and resisters, from Jonathan Swift to Joan Baez, and from Lyndon Johnson to Nguyen Thi Dinh.
Collage compels because it preserves (collects, if you will) a sense of origins, contexts, which the new composition will never quite obscure. This, too, is embodied presence. A reader should be able to feel the bumps and joins, to run her hands over the surface of the poem and feel where one piece of language meets another, where texture and temperature change. After a prefatory prose poem, “Couplet,” the book is composed entirely in couplets and solo lines, a form whose potential for multiple readings and recombinations, uncertain transitions and stopping points, belies it visual serenity.
Presiding over this manufactury, George Oppen shares space with Emily Dickinson. Both are great poets of war (though only one “was there”) and both are poets who create an illusion of simplicity where there is none. I was “there” in Vietnam (for a month in the year 2000), but I was not “there” in war. Nearly all of my life I have been “there” in the struggle of meaning located in “Vietnam.” It is also known as “here,” “now.”