Online Edition: Summer 2007

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Bone Pagoda

Susan Tichy

Ahsahta Press ($16)

by Nancy Kuhl

In Bone Pagoda, Susan Tichy’s third full-length collection of poetry and her first in nearly 20 years, the poet 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. Throughout the collection, Tichy investigates the conflicting and crumbling narratives of the American war in Vietnam, those of its casualties and its survivors, and of its various legacies of devastation. To navigate these complicated stories, the poet draws on and includes many voices—those of other poets, philosophers, popular musicians, journalists, war protesters, and soldiers, including Tichy’s late husband, a Vietnam veteran for whom Bone Padoga is a kind of elegy. Through her use of collage and multi-vocality, Tichy points out how inadequate a single, unified poetic voice would be for exploring this complex subject matter. For example, “Book of War” begins: “Opened at random it always yields / Burned grammar difficult to pass.”

The poems in this book are formally and musically unified. Tichy’s frequent use of couplets suggests the double-ness, the reflection, the inescapable tensions between self and other, past and present, the physical and the spiritual, that underlie the poems in this book. In “Corridor,” she writes:

This earth, this wood, a poet from the war-zone said
Said dirt of the graves distrusts a metaphor

Distrust a metaphor    and the path is lost
Said another poet, another war

Bone Pagoda’s central sonic feature, a kind of physical enactment of such uneasy twinings, might be described as a stutter, a faltering in which language becomes “Pure sound which cannot lie / Still.” In “Mimesis,” a poem considering betrayal, the poet’s shifting repetition of words and meanings reveals the struggle to reconcile remembered experience with present knowledge:

A voice I can’t remember
Face I can’t discover if

Snapshot through glass does not reflect
Or does it shows the sky but

Not my face my face my
My he said he

Didn’t know what to say he
Holding his camera against his heart he

Rash rash rash one.

Tichy’s lyrics stumble and catch as the poet attempts to approach the unspeakable (“He lived for half an hour though / He was almost cut in two he // Lived for half an hour cut in two” ). The adamant echoes throughout Bone Pagoda are accentuated by the repetition of rhetorical and syntactic structures (“Pastness of memory / Pastness of remark, the // Absolute violence of our language”). In Tichy’s carefully made poems, repetition is also a kind of revision, a way of transforming a narrative in midstream: “He went out to piss on the fantail / And became a headless corpse // Or he went out to piss on the faintail / And the explosion threw him clear.” In “Swerve,” Tichy writes: “A shot fired is a shot fired / Back.”

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.”


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