Sunday, July 20, 2008



Bone Pagoda by Susan Tichy
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2007)

The first thing you notice are the couplets that plow through Susan Tichy’s third collection, Bone Pagoda. Couplets seem to be in vogue these days, but there’s something about the couplets in these poems, perhaps their ballad echoes, their twinning and mirroring of language and imagery, their insistent repetitions. They serve the poet’s project, which is to piece together a fractured narrative from bits of culture, history as well as personal experience and recollection to re-envision the American experience of war, particularly the Vietnam War.

The book, which takes its title from an ossuary at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border containing the remains of 3,000 people massacred by the Khmer Rouge in 1978, is also an elegy to Tichy’s late husband, a Vietnam vet who served in the Mekong Delta. Tichy has written that a reader should be able to feel the bumps and rough places in a poem, where “one piece of language meets another, where texture and temperature change.” She succeeds in this pursuit by “mutter mutter toil and stutter,” as she writes in one poem.

This stuttering and muttering, the associative bumps from voice to voice, the unexpected rhymes and off rhymes imbue the poems with a tone that is archaically contemporary, if that makes sense. You hear and see echoes of the Scottish ballads that informed her childhood ear. But the images and associations are contemporary. Here’s an excerpt from the poem, Desk and Chair.
O the cover of night is a wonderful thing
Jiggery-pokery            preterit            shebeen

My precious collection of English words
‘Till the bridge brak and we fell in the mire’

Cryptograms and all known plants
What happened that day and to whom it happened

What happened that day and to whom it happened
A rocket went through his neck

Handbook of omens, melos, love
Sliced in half like a flatfish

Sliced in half            consummated
But not on the last page

There’s slant music in the lines, cadences that compel your foot to tap even as you collide into the brutal depiction of war’s horror. As I read lines like these, I found myself recalling the Child ballads, popularized by Joan Baez in the 1960s. So I dug out my Joan Baez songbook and, sure enough, songs like Henry Martin and Mary Hamilton reverberate with Tichy’s meters. That’s no accident. The poet acknowledges and includes a range of voices -- from her husband and Baez to Daniel Berrigan, Emily Dickinson, Robert Browning, George Oppen and more. The book is a conversation, she notes. Sometimes these voices talk at once, sometimes to each other, and always in communication with the poet, as she sifts through language to find her way through war and loss.


Pamela Hart, a former journalist, is writer in residence at the Katonah Museum of Art where she works as a teaching artist. Her chapbook, The End of the Body, was published in 2006. Her work, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been published in qarrtsiluni,, Rattapallax and Kalliope and is forthcoming in The Cortland Review. Read her blog, A Walk Around the Lake, at

1 comment:

EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Fiona Sze-Lorrain in GR #11 at