Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 31, July 2013—Mixed Form Issue)

Susan Tichy
Equal Meadows

I remember clearly the first words I wrote for the book I am now finishing, Trafficke: An Autobiography, an exploration of family history both true and false. The project took root in the Scottish-American identity on which I was raised, but has come, through years of research and the stripping away of legend and denial, to balance that identity and its construction against two hundred years of slave-owning in Maryland. At the book’s beginning, I was living with a friend while teaching in Virginia, in a too-small room on a one-time farm at the outskirts of suburbia. I sat down with my laptop and said to myself, you are going to write about this, and you can write anything. I opened a blank page and typed the words

Exile a meadow of equal

I didn’t know what they meant, wanted to erase them, correct them, begin again; but I did not. I wrote eighteen pages of verse, led by my ear and allowing that. Then I stopped, because I knew I wanted something more/else/other than pure lyric. To say the least, this was motivated lyric, a dew dripping out of particular histories, particular lacunae, particular ethical demands. I needed narrative, or at least a narrative platform on which a reader could stand (in both senses) to hear the singing, and I did not want to write that context into the verse, as I had struggled to do in my previous book, A Smell of Burning Starts the Day. This, very simply, was the beginning, for me, of mixed form: the need to create a space for lyric within a highly particular and complex history.

The selection of particular examples from a large group is always a social act. —Susan Howei

It was Susan Howe who had opened in me the permission to begin as I did, and not only because, like her “I [was] trying to understand what went wrong when the first Europeans stepped on shore here.”ii I knew this, despite my love for the other likely candidate, Czesław Miłosz, whom I had been reading far longer than I had been reading Howe. My copies of his poems, including the mixed-form works “From the Rising of the Sun” and “The Separate Notebooks,” were scribbled over with explications and implications, arguments and epiphanies.

From Miłosz, as from other poets of witness, I had learned a particular aspect of language’s limitations: that reduction of the concrete and particular to a set of propositions has acute ethical implications. (How abstract that sentence is! Let’s try again.) That reduction of suffering to the representation of suffering has acute ethical considerations. (Better, but still an example of the problem.) Resorting to pure image would seem to solve it but, in its own way, only replicates it.

Now we have a set of examples, perhaps metaphors, rather than the (unvoiced) propositions that engendered them. Thus, by speaking in image alone, a poem voices no awareness of its own predicament, perhaps rendering ideology more powerful by leaving it invisible.

. . . Thus ran my notes and marginalia, though image, in this sense, seems to graze far afield from its usual definition, to include gestures of narrative, to include any verbal construct offered as irreducible, any pebble in the mosaic.

I knew, already, that for me it had to be mosaic, a composition that admits, even foregrounds, its mongrel and collective origins. From Miłosz I had learned the necessary dialectic, the dialogue of contradictions, each image, statement, lie, metaphor, or memory as particular and historically situated/saturated as the next. In Trafficke, already in that earliest draft, many of the particulars, the pebbles, were fragments of language from reading and research. Not immaterial images of the material world, but words as written or uttered by others, in all their materiality: sounds, rhythms, spellings; grafts and fossils. Here is Howe, from the first poem of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings”—

To blew bird eggs plat

Habitants before dark

Little way went mistook awake

abt again Clay Gully

espied bounds to leop over

Selah cithera Opynne be

5 rails high houselot Cow

Kinsmen I pray you hasten

And from “Taking the Forest”—

Thread gone

Tongue collect songiii

Miłosz offers a breathtaking scale—the much-desired “more expansive form”—as well as an ethical explication behind the equally desired intensities of lyric: pinpointing not only a person or a word, but a particular locus for that person and that word. For example, take Zagary, a pre-war Lithuanian literary group translated as brushwood, but glossed by Miłosz in The History of Polish Literature for its meaning in his native locale: “dry twigs half-charred in fire but still glowing.”iv

But what of words? I could reach Miłosz only through translation, and thus his poems, for me, were bodiless. Listening to his poems was like reading song.

In my first notes for Trafficke, in among quotes from Miłosz, from historians, from my mother, from nineteenth-century propagandists and sixteenth-century Scottish poets: this, from Irish fiddler, Martin Hayes—

Music is just a language . . . It’s more accurate than any written history because it’s alive at this very moment.

And these notes, after a performance by Scottish folk singer, Dick Gaughan—

His singing moves in and out of intelligibility . . . the voice itself moving through sounds that are only partially anchored to diction. So, there are written texts, sung words, sung sounds, reverberations, silences . . . each embodied only in an actual voice. You hear in Gaughan the singers he learned from, the singings he learned from. Slipping fields of audibility, planes moving past and through each other. Guitar riffs like random images, emotive, breaking anchor.

And Susan Howe, again from “Incloser,” two quotations chosen from seven pages in my notes—

Strange translucencies: letters, phonemes, syllables, rhymes, shorthand segments, alliteration, assonance, meter, form a ladder to an outside state outside of States. Rungs between escape and enclosure are confusing and compelling . . .

Little by little, sound grew to be meaning. I cross an invisible line . . .⁠v

Thus I began Trafficke, feeling how my mouth moved as I read aloud, finding invisible mouth-rhyme between meadow and equal. And thus I returned—when I needed more than sound, but also not less than sound—to “The Falls Fight,” the prose introduction to “Articulations of Sound Form in Time,” a mere two pages, and, like most of Howe’s explicatory prose, written after the poems were complete. “Are they introductions or are they not?” she asks in the Talisman interview.

Two pages, two long paragraphs of historical narrative, an authoritative tone, alternating with three single sentences: the first a quotation, marked by punctuation but unattributed; the second her own interjection, extending and correcting the preceding content: “What the historian doesn’t say is that most of the dead were women and children.” The last is another quotation, aphoristic, marked by italics, attributed to John Cotton, and formed into a couplet centered on the page—

Prophesie is Historie antedated;

and History is Postdated Prophesie.

Thereafter, narration drops away as suddenly as a sinkhole. The reader stumbles, but the voice leaps—is it over or in?—fracturing into seven paragraphs in a mere half page. Noun phrases, blurred syntax, sentences that are not. That lodge like pebbles in narration’s shoe.

Effaced background dissolves remotest foreground. Putative author, premodern condition, presently present what future clamors for release?

Language must be handled, Miłosz says, with a certain sense of danger.

By the end of the page we return to solid ground, with the poet’s closing declaration—

I assume Hope Atherton’s excursion for an emblem foreshadowing a Poet’s abolished limitations in our demythologized fantasy of Manifest Destiny.

On the next page, before the first sequence, “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings,” there follows another apparent grounding, the familiar signpost of epigraph: a long quotation from a letter of 1781, an account of an account of Hope Atherton’s adventures.

Thus, nearly all the ingredients are presented to a reader before the poems are encountered—from historical narrative to unpoliced syntax, from marked quotation to a narrator’s intervention, and from familiar genres to their useful undermining.

The poems that follow will break all those boundaries, and add a few new materials: radical typography, words coined or archaic, disjunctive syntax extended to disjunctive spelling. At its densest, the collage of fragments will allow sound forms to articulate, but push sense-making away from syntactic chronology, toward a fused and frozen present that exists only in language (and only in the mind of a willing reader), built from the doubled contexts of the fragments. Words that come trailing the fire of their origins even as those origins are elided. Phrases whose collisions push the tongue toward babble, push the irritable, reaching mind toward the dictionary. Poems that were before the introduction was written, before their ingredients were sifted out and presented as separable discourses wielding separate powers.

As if speech must always recall sensation to order . . .vi

There’s a sense in which I can think of Howe’s many books, essays, and sequences less as individual compositions, more as one long alternation between prose and verse, between the ordered and the free, between or among different modes of investigation; but that is a distant perspective. On the page, prose and verse remain apart, verse being a wilder place, the prose a kind of trailhead: not so near the edge of the map. Here is the end of the oft-reprinted “THERE ARE NOT LEAVES ENOUGH TO CROWN TO COVER TO CROWN TO COVER,” the mixed-form introduction to another 1990 volume, The Europe of Trusts

This is my historical consciousness. I have no choice in it. In my poetry, time and again, questions of assigning the cause of history dictate the sound of what is thought.

Summary of fleeting summary

Pseudonym cast across empty

Peak proud heart

. . . .

Causeway of faint famed city

Human ferocity

Dim mirror Naught formula

archaic hallucinatory laughter

Kneel to intellect in our work

Chaos cast cold intellect back

Poetry brings similitude and representation to configurations waiting from forever to be spoken. North Americans have tended to confuse human fate with their own salvation. In this I am North American. “We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more,” sang the Union troops at Gettysburg.

I write to break out into perfect primeval Consent. I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted, inarticulate.vii

Is this the one boundary necessary in order to free lyric from the need to narrate its own motivation and situation, its starting points? Perhaps it is separation that frees the poet to write intuitively, by ear, on subjects her readers won’t know about unless she tells them. The boundary accentuates difference between prose and verse, calls attention to their conventions, staging those conventions as clearly as an actor moving back and forth between soliloquy and plot-furthering dialogue. Staging the poet’s vocation within history.

Yet attention to the writer’s choices also reveals a danger: the possibility of unexpected choice, of surprise, of stumble. That was a danger I wanted for Trafficke, and learned from Howe: the potential for any comfortable footing to crumble, for sentences to break away, verse lines to cohere unexpectedly into narrative calm. That sink-hole opening up at a reader’s feet—

. . . starting free and being captured and breaking free again and being captured again . . .viii


i“Incloser,” The Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history. Weslayan, 1993: 45.
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iiTalisman interview, The Birthmark: 164.
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iiiArticulation of Sound Forms in Time is collected in Singularities, Wesleyan, 1990.
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ivLeonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn. The Poet’s Work: An Introduction to Czesław Miłosz. Harvard, 1991: 10.
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vThe Birthmark: 46, 47.
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viIntroduction, The Birthmark: 3.
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viiSun & Moon, 1990: 13 – 14.
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viiiTalisman interview, The Birthmark: 166.
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