Saturday, July 3, 2010

Susan Tichy's "A Ghost"

On The Mountain

Those who climb mountains make a special claim to knowledge: that their step-by-step (or hand-over-hand) experience is the truth of a mountain, unavailable to those who merely look. In Simon Schama’s words, a climber’s perception is akin to collage: “an additively constructed assembly of details, each one discretely verifiable.” As a walker in high mountains (though never much of a climber) I consider this truth to be obvious, and fundamental. I hold it in tension with other ways of knowing—especially, of course, what I’ve learned from poets—but am interested in the fact that I have been walking rocky trails longer than I have been writing poems.

Some days, I say the one-two line structure, the open and open-ended syntax, and the asymmetrical rhythms of “A Ghost” mimic walking on rocky ground—“a stumbler stumbling / uphill,” assembling an experience that can’t be reduced to sentences with more orderly, hierarchal organization. Other days, this form seems merely literary, a line evolved from earlier poems . . . which in turn devolved from Oppen and other poets, not from my feet. Moore’s “An Octopus” also stands in the background—a very tall ridge, though behind that, taller still, stands Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.”

The poem has a setting—a ridge in the Colorado Sangre de Cristo—and a not-quite-absent beloved, lost in and to that landscape. It also carries, in the tension between its images and its thoughts, a long conversation among those who think on their feet and those who think with pencil in hand—a debate in which I can’t help but take both sides.

In the 1850s, John Ruskin, a lover of mountains and of J.M.W. Turner, criticized climbers in the Alps for their focus on the summit and on what Leslie Stephen described as “hours of labour, divided into minutes—each separately felt." While such muscular sensation might be good preparation, Ruskin argued, it could never be the truth of painting, which for him included a more omniscient eye. That eye was not merely Romantic, however: it was geological. Of Mountain Beauty, the 4th volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, is largely devoted to the structure of mountains, from their wave-like crests to the microcosmic topography of a stone in the hand—both of which make visible the ghostly landscape of living rock conjured by our knowledge of geology as not-quite-arrested motion. In Ruskin’s own drawings are no human figures: the artist himself is the traveler and his eyes are our eyes. In this I find a parallel to the grammatical absence of the poet in Taoist mountain poems of T’ang and pre-T’ang China—an absence I have emulated in “A Ghost.”

Ruskin was not an artist, per se, but one who used drawing as a way of seeing, attaining by hand his own muscular knowledge of mountains. Many of his drawings from the Alps remain unfinished—one part a colorist’s dense or delicate tapestry, one part a skeleton of penciled rock forms, their contours and ridgelines extending over inches of raw paper. Critics have chided him for a short attention span, but unfinished sentences don’t trouble me: those drawings are eerily moving, records of a process that halted at the exact moment a sought-for knowledge was reached.


  1. I enjoyed reading "A Ghost," as well as your new book Gallowglass. I love the exploratory movement through this poem with the two-line form. You use collage seamlessly, and I appreciate your insight and explanation of relating this to a climber, as well as the analogy of Ruskin, in your essay above. You discuss the grammatical absence of Taoist mountain poets that you emulate, which I see; I also see a grammatical cognizance and the poet's endless attempt to be precise with language, for example, the lines "not summer snow but summit snow/ not summit snow but summit/- it's a verb/ trail worn into white rock." I look forward to reading more of your work.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Susan! Precision, in this case, has as much to do with shifting perceptions as it does with accuracy. - Susan

  3. Susan--Beautiful poem and interesting to hear you speak about influences in terms of the negotiation of the body/sense with a terrain and the negotiation of an intellect with poetic predecessors. In this process it makes sense that it takes a page or two for the I to appear. In the context of yr poetics, is this emergence of the I something that has to be "earned"?

  4. Thanks, Joe. I've tried to let myself be present from the beginning, but not grammatically distinct from the details of the mountain, and of walking. But the poem has other concerns that are personal, and that do bring me out into visibility--grief, and memory, and the sense of a destination are all human and individual. They make total merger of the walker with the mountain impossible. So I think it's not so much an "earned" appearance of the "I" as an inevitable one, an admission or an honesty about the self's interiority.

  5. Yesterday one of my hiking buddies told me she doesn't want to post a comment b/c she's not a poet and can't talk about these writerly issues. Well, here's my official invitation to everyone in the Sangres--just say what you think! The poets may know poems, but you know mountains!

  6. I really enjoy how in "A Ghost" you seem to use fragments of landscape and natural images to string together something that happened and may now be over, yet is still embodied in that place. Has the way you use land or nature in a poem like “A Ghost” to describe, outline, or suggest events or emotions affected your perception of or relationship to land and/or nature?

  7. Susan--"Inevitable" over "earned." I like that. Thanks for the reply.

  8. Hi Tracy-- I have started three different answers to this question, each of them contradicting the other… because, in truth, I have experienced such different relationships to the land, and to language, at different times and in different circumstances, that it’s hard to choose one and pin it up on this bulletin board. It’s also hard to determine whether writing “A Ghost” (and other, related, poems) has altered the mix.

    What’s certain is that every death has the potential to bring on a metaphysical crisis—do we really believe what we think we believe? Thus, I interrogate my experience of mountains—of these mountains—the way a Christian might meditate on the will of God. I love these mountains; he loved these mountains; you might say his love of them killed him. The Romantic notion of mountain sublime as terrible sublime is notion no longer.

    Walking in mountains, I have always been acutely aware of the distance/difference between verbal and nonverbal experience—the rock vs. word standoff, or the lung-and-leg-muscle capacity vs. vocabulary. And yet, as Niedecker wrote, “in every part of every living thing / is stuff that once was rock,” and this knowledge does change how I think about sore muscles or an empty water bottle, as much as it changes how I think about landscape as a thing of beauty or a place of danger.

    What language has in common with rock—especially artifactual language like a poem—is the ability to record, by embodying, the shocks of change…. thus, the attempt to embed into the poem’s form so many small bits of so many different events, attitudes, instructions, clarifications, and losses, each displacing the last as the lines fracture and move on. Embedding my own loss in the poem’s conglomerate is a way of surrendering grief without dissolving it, making it part of an accumulative reality. I find that metaphor consoling, and to that extent I might say writing the poem has affected my relationship to the mountains.

    That ridge of the Sangre de Cristo, by the way, is partly formed of Crestone conglomerate, a rock that can be spectacular in its contrasting colors and textures, making the violence of time and change unavoidably visible, and beautiful.

  9. I love your sentence "embedding my own loss in the poems's conglomerate is a way of surrendering grief without dissolving it, making in part of an accumulative reality." It seems you could substitute the word "mountain" for "poem" in that sentence very easily. Thank you for your response to my question. Thinking about how land shapes us & language and how we then shape land with our experiences and with language seems to be an endless pursuit. Thank goodness for poets!

  10. Hola Susan Tichy, Your magnificent poem, your "rolling on landwave" and "stone in the bristlecone" in the Southern Rockies, lofts, soars, as if with Gary Snyder's Sierras in RIPRAP, like this truth from his title poem,

    Granite: ingrained // with torment of fire and weight // Crystal and sediment linked hot // all change, in thoughts, // As well as things.

    D.E. Steward

  11. Thanks, D.E. It won't surprise you to hear that Snyder's early work is high on my list of influences--so thanks for the compliment.