There are rhythms to walking on rough ground, a step-after-step persistence that swallows obstacles, like irregular lines that nonetheless carry forward through the poem.
Susan Tichy’s recent collection of poems, North | Rock | Edge: Shetland 2017/2019(Parlor Press/Free Verse Editions, 2022), distills somatic observations down their bones. Tichy describes an immersive, granular experience exploring the contours, rocks, winds, and waters of Shetland, a remote northern archipelago between Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway. In isolated yet accumulative images and line breaks, she details the distances and resonances between geology and language, minutely mutable coastscapes, and how to write and walk in a time of planetary change.
Susan Tichy is the author of seven books. The Avalanche Path in Summer (Ahsahta Press, 2019) is a muscle-memory of a life in mountains, and Trafficke (Ahsahta Press, 2015) mingles prose and verse to investigate race, language, and her maternal family’s history, spanning from Reformation Scotland to the abolition of slavery in Maryland. She has written extensively about war and its human consequences, including the volumes Gallowglass (Ahsahta, 2010), Bone Pagoda(Ahsahta, 2007), and A Smell of Burning Starts the Day(Wesleyan, 1988). Her first book, The Hands in Exile (Random House, 1983), was selected for the National Poetry Series. Now professor emerita at George Mason University, she lives in Colorado, spending much of the year in a cabin she and her late husband built by hand.
Are we glimpsing what we cannot know, a time before fear, before the sentient? Or are we standing before this rock as if before an altar, struggling to speak the grief and the terror of matter itself, in the uncompromising reality of change?
Tracy Zeman:North | Rock | Edge is a densely sonorous, richly beautiful, and complexly fragmented slim volume of poems about a very specific landscape. As an introduction to the book, I’d like to ask you to describe the Shetland Islands, where they are, how you came to be there, and why you decided to write about them.
Susan Tichy: Shetland is an archipelago rising from the seafloor 110 miles north of mainland Scotland, at the conjunction of the North Atlantic, North Sea, and Arctic Ocean and within the influence of the north-running Shelf Edge and Norwegian currents. Shetland’s west-facing cliffs are battered by a permanent deep Atlantic swell with fetch of maybe 1,000 miles, from mid-ocean storms, or 2,000 miles from the coast of Canada. Even on a calm day breaking waves may climb 50 or 70 feet above the sea surface, throwing rocks and boulders over the clifftop. As soon as I read about that, I knew I had to not just see it, but feel the impact.
My interest in geology grew while writing The Avalanche Path in Summer, walking my home ground in the Colorado Rockies. Some of the last poems written started to meld walking with geology and weather in a way that felt like a poetics I wanted to inhabit. So I started to think harder about how poetic form might become an analog for geological processes and formations. At the same time, I wanted to pursue my walking practice as a traveler, not an insider—in a new landscape and new light, different footing, different rock. I thought Shetland might be one point on a wandering map, but as soon as I landed I was captured.
Each of Shetland’s coasts is actually two—outer and inner. Carved by ice into infinite indentations, the outer coast was then flooded by 400 feet of post-glacial sea-rise, creating an inner coast that winds along wicks (wide bays) and voes (narrow, winding bays) for nearly 1,700 miles, encircling and penetrating a mere 560 square miles of land. No spot you might stand on Shetland’s 100 or so islands is more than three miles from the sea. This is the only landscape I have been in that is shaped so completely by ice, lacking the river-drainage topography we of the moderate latitudes take for granted. Over that falls Northern light—in any season euphoric and addictive.
Tracy Zeman: To me the vast miles of coastline and the spare extent of the islands’ interiors are in direct relation to the way you multiply and complicate meaning in your line work. The islands’ bays, rugged edges, and jagged protrusions correlate with the way the poems look on the page, a varied right margin, short lines, and a proliferation of line breaks. There are few stopping points in the poems, no periods, and sparse punctuation generally, so that pacing and rhythm are made with line, as if the reader is part of one continuous yet staggered experience. Can you comment on how the islands’ structure influenced your approach to form in this project?
Susan Tichy: Coastal scientists describe a coast as fractal—dividing infinitely into smaller and smaller increments, all the way down to a protruding rock, a tide line, or even a boot track that fills with water and extends the water’s edge. In retrospect, I would define the relationship of coast to poetic line much as you do. In practice, though, I arrived at the form by creating it, abandoning others that felt unrelated to the landscape or its foot-feel. There are rhythms to walking on rough ground, a step-after-step persistence that swallows obstacles, like irregular lines that nonetheless carry forward through the poem. There’s also a sensory excitement in a sea-rock-light-wind-bird-flower-seal-seep-peat-rain-salt—oh look, there’s a whale!—environment that subsumes attention to any one thing into the press of the whole. I don’t compose on foot as Brian Teare has described in his essay “En Plein Air Poetics,” but I share what he calls the “proprioceptive ecstasy” of oxygen-filled blood and an unlocked mind.
Tracy Zeman: Recently, I was reading an essay by Kathleen Fraser in her book Translating the Unspeakableon Lorine Niedecker. Fraser writes that Niedecker frequently wrote “from a discipline that eschewed the singular self or ego as the central focus of the poem.” North | Rock | Edge expresses physical, intellectual, and emotional knowledge about place in an intimate, embodied way—with boot, thought, foot, eye, and hand—though you also eschew the “I.” I feel that the lack of “I” allows the reader to experience the place as the poem’s speaker does, and that the landscape stays primary and the human secondary in the action. Can you explain why you made this choice and what effect you hoped it would have on the reader’s experience of the text?
Susan Tichy: Just as you say, I hope readers can absorb through my senses, rather than looking at me. I would be happy if they felt that effect without even noticing the absence of a pronoun—just as I did. I had written a full draft of North | Rock | Edge before I noticed the absence of “I.” Actually, at that point it occurred twice. I took out the personal one, but left the line from George Oppen—a little joke that pleased me by placing the “I” in someone else’s mouth. To me, the poems feel so intensely somatic and personal that the grammatical sign felt unnecessary. Here and there, I drafted other people’s words to express the sensation more directly, such as Robert Macfarlane’s thought diffusing /at body’s edge in “Eshaness | Is It Force Failure.”
Tracy Zeman: Geology and an interest in rocks are prominent in the poems. As is breaking or shattering. Waves break on rock, rocks themselves are amalgamations of fractured previous eras and ecologies—“itself, each point / of shatter echoing / a sea before / this sea.” Can you tell us more about what makes Shetland’s geology significant, and how you use the composition of rocks to negotiate time and our human position in it?
Susan Tichy: Rock blurs the categories of time and space by making time visible and place temporal. A poem uses both rest and motion to create a form, which can be seen and must be heard—as the Susan Howe epigraph says, fleeting and fixed. These poems, like many in Avalanche Path, have a surface texture of fragmentation, abrupt change, and brokenness metamorphized into a new whole, voiced in present time, human time. Nothing is still; nothing is uniform. The islands as they now stand are an inselberg, an erosional remnant rising directly from deep ocean floor. Da haaf, the deep, can be reached half a mile offshore, at a depth that could take a hundred miles to reach from the coast of England. So there’s a sense of firm edges, a sharp thingness and thisness, literally shaken by surf both striking and penetrating “cliff[s] of its own making,” all this footnoted by beaches and tombolos where land and sea collide, collude, and overlap. Encircled by and arising from such relentless energy, the islands make rhythms—visually solid but also as unexpected and changeable as the wind.
Shetland has more concentration of surface geological features than any comparable area in Europe, including an exposed fault plane and a massive extinct volcano. Its surface includes seven types of sedimentary, metamorphic, and intrusive igneous rock, the most unusual being an ophiolite—heavy mantle and ocean-floor rock forced upward by collision—that forms the eastern half of the islands of Unst and Fetlar. The western sides of these two islands are continental rock split from what’s now Appalachia and eastern Canada when the Atlantic Ocean opened up. At one beach on Unst, where both formations are exposed, you can stand on the line of contact. At another, you can run your hands over the sedimental layers of turbidites uprooted from the ocean floor. That’s where I first thought of coring through a source text as geologists core through rock, “phrased by reading / vertically / what had been laid down / horizontally”—though, given the meandering paths I took through my sources, a more accurate analogy might be the veins of quartz intrusion cutting through a turbidite’s accumulative syntax of sedimentation.
Tracy Zeman: Language in the poems seems defined by place, but place is also defined by language. And terms that describe language are used to define place and vice versa: “a verse / of coast becoming dearth / of certainty, to undefine / the edge as noun” or “severed / vernacular” or “Pangaea : condense to five words // seventy million years of magma.” Language, grammar, and place are recurrent themes in many of your books. Using language this way seems to point to its instability, its slipperiness, its attempts to describe while not really being able to. How do you go about describing in language such a visually dense place? Is that interchange between place and word and word and place part of how you do that work?
Susan Tichy: It’s exactly how I do that work. I wouldn’t say it’s an “attempt to describe” that is somehow thwarted or endangered by the instability of language; I would say the poems come closest to the real—or to what Oppen called clarity—when they make us aware of the presence of language in perception and experience. Literary discourse tends to reify place in a way that particularly needs and deserves interrogation and fragmentation. Disrupting the expected experience of language also disrupts the expected boundaries of place as an idea, returning to its status as a process in time, interruptible, but also experiential.
Tracy Zeman: One more question on form! Niedecker described her process as one of constant condensing, “I learned / to sit at desk / and condense // No layoff / from this / condensery.” And Fraser, in the same essay I mentioned previously, claims that Niedecker’s condensation reveals “the radiant power of individual words minimally framed.” Fraser’s words could certainly describe the effect of your minimalist approach in North | Rock | Edge. Your work hasn’t always been so truncated though; Trafficke and Gallowglass are comprised of denser text, longer lines, and in the case of Trafficke, prose. Why do you rely so much on the individual word in this sequence?
Susan Tichy: Gallowglass was a book of and about grieving within the auras of past and present wars. The long-line ghazals created a paratactic present where public and private images and narrative fragments could interchange to the discomfiture of both. In Trafficke I needed to convey narratives not otherwise available to readers, while at the same time cross-contaminating historical and emotional spaces in a critique of pervasive cultural and conceptual violence. I approached the latter partially through language, using diction from the Scottish mythologies of my family to describe enslavement in Maryland, and vice-versa. Individual words and phrases, rhymes and puns, were hinges on which those passages turned, particularly in interactions between prose narrative and lineated verse. North | Rock | Edge, being essentially geological, is built from words as from durable fragments incorporated into sedimental or metamorphic structures. Intensity of sound is perhaps the metamorphosis, the pressure that alters and fuses individual words into each poem’s matrix.
Tracy Zeman: Related to the previous question is your use of and persisting interest in collage. What is the impact of bringing in others’ words and mixing them with your own? Sometimes they are set off by quotation marks or italics, but other times they are woven in without signaling. You engage in significant research and reading, and language gleaned from that work is often threaded through the poems; however, in this book you draw in language from other poets, some are in your family tree of influences, and some are your contemporaries. Why this shift in collage-text sources?
Susan Tichy: It happened in stages, beginning with the nature of my sources. All were informative but few were quotable. I like to find words with their own linguistic or imagistic resonance, which I can pull partly or wholly out of context to make them do different work—maybe radically different, maybe just aslant—without sacrificing the allure of the original. My notebooks seemed a bit thin on arresting phrases, and I wasn’t interested in including explanatory language. I think I slid from that problem into pulling text from poems when I was reading anthologies of writing on the Scottish north that included both prose and poetry, sometimes from the same writer. I didn’t want to pull from them, it felt like poaching, but it gave me the idea of fracturing and transporting what was already condensed. This was after my first trip to Shetland—two weeks of nonstop walking and sensory euphoria. I turned first to poets whose work I hadn’t necessarily paid deep attention to, hoping to avoid the distortion of my own opinions, and, in some cases, to work in ignorance of the poet’s intent. In retrospect I would say this parallels the spirit of exploration-in-ignorance inherent in travel writing, particularly on a first visit. I looked for poems in which language was sufficiently abstract to be repurposed without that sense of poaching. In some cases, I started coring before I had even arrived at an understanding of the book in my hand; that was deliberate, though some later revisions reflected a better reading of those texts. I think of that stage as akin to finding an interesting rock and breaking it open to see what you might find, and a number of such experiments didn’t make it into the book. The most important that did persist were E. Tracy Grinnell’s portrait of a lesser subject and several sequences by Bin Ramke.
For my second trip I took electronic copies of some of my personal classics—Dickinson, Howe, Moore, Niedecker, and Oppen—as well as individual poems by others. In Shetland I copied some poems by hand, to carry in my pockets as I walked, as if keeping them in proximity to both my body and the weather-land/water-land would work some kind of magic. I sometimes pulled out those scraps and read them, wherever I was in the landscape. At the time I just did it, out of desire, but I’m sure now that the practice helped to imprint one on the other, to later make poems.
Once home again, working through the winter and into the start of the Covid shut-down, I started to understand my own project, having discovered, or clarified, my own thoughts via writing the poems. That was the time to ask myself how my ideas twined with or evolved from poets of my personal canon—poets I have returned to so many times, for so many reasons—to discover how the presence of their language had shaped and was shaping my experience and poetic practice. (I was happy to discover that sometimes the answer was playfully.) Dickinson’s presence is always a reminder to look, and listen, twice. Her erratic capitalization—which I preserved—turns a word into a presence, a harkening, like a glacial erratic whose presence is at once strange and revelatory. Invoking Oppen invokes fundamental debates: the ethical dilemma of individual versus communal, and the oscillating powers of image and fact—how an image can arc a spark from experience to text and back again, and a fact can be obstacle or gateway, but neither alone is sufficient. “On Foot with Oppen | Muckle Roe” incorporates his declaration of a personal failure at the end of “Pro Nobis” (I had hoped to arrive at an actuality) then carries onward shards of the subsequent “Of Being Numerous,” fitting them jigsaw-like into a landscape that awaits nothing and is what it is, with or without our attention or approval. The process itself was a way of articulating how the embodied experience of walking combats our reflexive desire to retreat into ideas—astonishment / that if [wind] strikes us we are truly here.
When I woke, I knew I had dreamed the future—or a future, in which the anger of the young will be merciless.
Tracy Zeman: There is an interplay in the poems, somewhat subtle, between earthmade/wavemade/tidemade and humanmade—“to cliff as verb / where sea says tuff + salt / says fate kelp nylon / rope.” Toxicity and climate change are in the background but are not the main subjects of the poems. “[F]racture / impenetrably ours //where polymers / almost but can never //dissolve,” or “how / to speak before / a planet’s / broken / openness.” InAvalanche you wrote about how climate is changing the Rocky Mountains, the seasons of fire and drought becoming longer and more severe. Did you think about climate change as you treaded this place? Why did you decide on this path—including hints of the coming catastrophe but not making it the overarching concern?
Susan Tichy: The first time I went to Meal Beach, on West Burra—a stunning crescent of rock-framed sand, washed by arcs of gray, blue, and turquoise water—I tried to pick up a piece of rope from a fishing boat, a kind of anti-Romantic souvenir, but it proved too entangled with everything else at the wrack line, from kelp to water bottles, and I couldn’t pull it free. Aiming smaller, I tried for a disposable pen, but even that was so emmeshed that I had to leave it. That night I dreamed of an old house in a woodland, in which living people calmly observed their own rotting or dismembered limbs, speaking kindly among themselves, while others—all of them young—gleefully ransacked the house, the woods, and the corpses of those who had already died. My late husband was with me, so we casually made our way to our pickup, hoping to avoid attention and quietly slip away. As we climbed in the truck, it seemed exactly its old self, but as soon as we closed the doors we saw that it, too, had been dismembered and left to rot—nothing left but a wheelless body and windowless cab. When I woke, I knew I had dreamed the future—or a future, in which the anger of the young will be merciless.
At the surface, climate change can be less visible in Shetland than in many places. Some of the dismembered in my dream looked like Pacific Islanders, who live with the disappearance of their homelands every day. Sea-rise is less threatening on a rocky coastline. Sea warming hasn’t changed the climate enough for a visitor to notice, but birds bring the news. Both the iconic Atlantic puffin and the less charismatic black-legged kittiwake depend on sand eels and capelin, which don’t thrive in warming water, and both birds have suffered breeding failure in this century—catastrophically for the shallow-feeding kittiwakes. Also, and ironically, new wind farms are destroying large expanses of peat bog, which acre-for-acre exceeds the rainforest in carbon sequestration. In the poems I dealt with these truths matter-of-factly, because that is how I encountered them—as norms of the planet. Nylon fishing rope thrashes in surf below the volcanic cliffs of Eshaness. A net lies tangled through ninth century Pictish ruins in an overwashed dune on Unst. Carbon sinks like sun.
More insidious are the invisibles—microplastics pervading sea, land, air, and bodies; and the structural ideologies that have brought us to this time. I walked the ophiolite with Oppen’s “The Crowded Countries of the Bomb,” considering how events and actions become places and things, including existential threats of our own making—both atomic threat and micro polymers impenetrably ours. On Meal Beach I did not catalog what I saw; we all have seen such things. By carrying Susan Howe down that hill I listened for what phrases and sounds might release from history into our time, and perhaps what our words will release into the future. Descending through word and phrase, decoding what depositions both reveal and obscure, I found the wrack line at the point where the Old English thinge splits into the modern dualism of thing and think, the Edenic loss inherent in Lacan: plastic in- // extricable / as symbol // from the real it came / to kill.
As for the planet’s broken openness… I know ending the poem on that line can conjure a straightforward vision of Anthropogenic destruction. Yet in the presence of a Skaw Beach turbidite—essentially a beached and broken piece of an ancient undersea landslide—it holds the perspective of Deep Time—which may be consolation, may be vertigo, may be an amoral temptation away from responsibility, but is certainly a fact. The lines you quoted turn on the meaning of before. Are we glimpsing what we cannot know, a time before fear, before the sentient? Or are we standing before this rock as if before an altar, struggling to speak the grief and the terror of matter itself, in the uncompromising reality of change?
Tracy Zeman: A question for the poet-birders out there. We both love birds and often exchange messages about what we see out our windows and while traveling. Do you think birds can serve as windows into knowing a place? Or are they familiar touchstones in unknown landscapes? I think birding is a practice in knowing sound, season, geography, even shape and tiny differences—the sharpness of a wingtip, the presence of a crown or crest. The eiders, gulls, divers, dunlins, and gannets add so much movement and life to your poems here, beyond the interaction of rock and wave. Can you tell us what they represent for you, what they mean to you while you are out trekking or inside looking out?
Susan Tichy: The more I learn about birds the more primeval they become, their essential birdness defining Earth as pervasively as water and rock. Something I read recently said of seabirds that where they are is what they are, no discernible gap arising between a bird and the environment in which it lives, in which it evolved. Nothing could be less like us, which is perhaps why we cannot stop watching them. At a deep cellular level we remember them, or what it was like to be like them. I loved the nesting colonies of gannets, guillemots, and razorbills—tens of thousands—and the interplay of rock, sea, and seabirds on and offshore from the cliffs of Noss (which both Moore and Niedecker seemed to enjoy immensely). We watched guillemot fathers coax fledging chicks down from nesting shelves to the sea, while bonxies (great skuas) stole fish from gannets midair, so close it felt like arm’s reach from the boat. That said, one of the joys of travel is that in a new environment no bird is too mundane to be interesting. Take the Shetland wren—both like and unlike other wrens, it lives on boulder beaches and along clifftops in a micro-environment of grass, moss, and shrub, shelving rock, mist, and rain. There, it goes about its wren-business, rarely still and rarely flying more than a few feet above the ground, bothered by neither relentless wind nor the predatory gulls and skuas passing overhead. You can walk quite close, but the distance is uncrossable.
Tracy Zeman: One final question, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
Susan Tichy: My original vision was a multi-part project: one in Shetland, one on Hatteras Island, and perhaps a third on Fogo Island in Newfoundland, all of them linked by North Atlantic currents and the seasonal routes of pelagic birds, and all that threatens them. Covid put that on hold, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to resume that travel. I have made it back to Hatteras once (in a Nor’easter) and from there offshore to the Gulf Stream—ink-blue water and a pan-Atlantic crossroads of seabirds—but I haven’t felt immersed enough to resume those poems. In the meantime, I’m working on a history of my family’s 200 years of slaveholding in Maryland—an outgrowth of Trafficke, this time for an ordinary reader.
Tracy Zeman’s first book, Empire, won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Cincinnati Review, Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly, and others. She recently spent two weeks on remote Isle Royale in Lake Superior as a National Park Service artist-in-residence. She lives outside Detroit, Michigan, with her husband and daughter, where she hikes and bird watches in all seasons.
Header photo of Shetland Islands by Marcin Kadziolka, courtesy Shutterstock.