by Susan Tichy
Ahsahta Press © 2010, 79 pgs. ISBN: 9781934103135.
A Review by Mike Maggio
The Language Is the Thing: A Review of Susan Tichy’s Gallowglass.
For those familiar with Susan Tichy’s poetry, they will know the obvious: how much of her work deals with war and loss; how her disjunctive approach to prosody, in which language is often foregrounded over meaning, informs the subject matter at hand; how her interest in collage, in English and Scottish ballads, in language as object and the negative capability of text all spill out onto the page like paint dripping onto a Jackson Pollack canvas, creating poetry which reluctantly surrenders meaning through the dense landscape it creates.
So it comes as no surprise that her latest effort, Gallowglass, continues with these constructs, weaving together language and image and building upon the success of her previous work, including the award-winning book The Hands in Exile and her recent collection Bone Pagoda.
Reading Tichy’s work is no easy matter. It requires time and patience: a willingness to allow oneself to be drawn into the multiple folds of language and meaning and to be mesmerized into believing that where she is taking you is worth the journey. Yet for readers who are prepared to embark on such a quest, the rewards are indeed remarkable, for they will be submerged into a world of language rich in texture and brimming with social and literary history.
The title itself hints at the complexities the book holds. The splendid assonance of the word gallowglass, which balloons in the mouth as it is pronounced, evokes the sumptuousness of the language contained within the text. And to those unaware of its meaning, it suggests the splendor of hand-blown glass together with the horrors of the feared and gruesome gallows. Yet, as you read the endnotes, you will find that the term has nothing to do with either of these. Coming from the Gaelic, it is, in fact, a reference to foreign mercenaries – specifically the Wild Geese of Ireland who were exiled in 1690 -- a meaning which resonates with the subject matter of the book: America’s wars. Combine this with the images the title originally suggests to the uninformed and you are prepared for a journey like no other.
Fittingly, Gallowglass begins with a poem called “American Ghazals,” a piece which grounds us to both the prosody and the context in which the work operates: war in the Middle East. Appropriating the poetic form most common in Arabic and Persian poetry, Tichy plunges us into a strange geography of quasi-Bedouins, mad poets, distorted wars and mysterious torturers:
Three men who look like Bedouin, but are not, pause with their camels in the snow—
Photo shot through a bus window, twenty-nine years ago on the Khyber Pass.
On the radio I thought they said, ‘The way the war is disinfected.’
So I turned the page over and found it blank.
Was. Was. Was Was, the mad poet said. But the president says no,
That poet wasn’t mad. That poet understood the rent collector.
Rats run closely along a wall, the wall and body always touching.
If you tear the wall down, rats run closely along the wall’s memory.
Flight hear uneventful, homicide movie in the main cabin.
A soldier is writing a story about a soldier writing a story. (p.3)
Like the eastern ghazals and like most of Gallowlgass, the poem is written in couplets and the language is rich yet misleadingly simple. Yet what is most important here, and throughout the remainder of the text, is not so much what is but what is not, as we are presented with three men who look like Bedouins but aren’t, a narrator who misunderstands what is said and, consequently, finds nothing, and a president who disputes the mental state of the poet who we are explicitly told is mad.
This subtle dance -- between the seen and the unseen, between the known and the unknown -- becomes increasingly important as the book unfolds and as the story of war – not just war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but all war – becomes mired in subtle untruths, carefully scripted lies and images that mask the realities they supposedly portray.
Not all of Gallowglass, however, is about war. Much of it has to do with personal loss, with grief and the coming to terms with grief. This aspect of the text – and you cannot separate it from the rest because it is all carefully entwined together – combines the personal with the public – the private and non-battle-related death of Tichy’s husband, who was a Vietnam veteran, with the public face of war, in a lament that sings like the ballads she draws from:
At the center of the canvas, two travelers have turned their backs,
And we are meant to look with them at what they are looking toward.
Flock of crows on a frozen lake: the sweet is dark, the dark is sweet.
But let me whisper in your other ear. O sky black with bombers.
He fell on an ordinary day: dry rock, a Wednesday. If this were a ballad,
I would tie my hair round his middle waist and rhyme would carry him home.
She says, ‘I don’t think of the past.’ What she means is that they carried her
For twenty-seven days through mountains.
House finches sing from the telephone wires.
And house finches sing from the tips of the ocotillo.
Our life between the wars, I say – my one great nostalgia. She sat straight up in the middle of the night and looked at herself in the mirror. (p.16)
This interweaving of the private and the public is a motif that runs throughout the text, each informing the other: private grief reflects public anguish over war and lives lost in battle, over the pointlessness of conflicts fought under false pretences; while the senseless act of war and the attempts to come to terms with it replicate the challenge of reconciling the pain associated with the death of a loved one.
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.
Language is what takes precedence in Gallowglass: language that is carefully crafted and exquisitely presented –language that challenges the reader while at the same time enticing him like a distant siren. Yet for those willing to work, meaning will eventually reveal itself, and it will be well worth the toil.
Mike Maggio is the author of Your Secret Is Safe With Me, Oranges From Palestine, Sifting Through the Madness and deMOCKracy. He lives in Herndon, Virginia with his wife and three children.