Book Review

There is a call to approach the remote corners of the world and know, for a moment, a stillness and quietude, a form of nothing that seems to resonate as a form of living. Susan Tichy’s North | Rock | Edge is a slow embrace of such isolation, a refreshment for my readerly self during a time when words like “isolation” gained new, traumatic dissonances in this pandemic world.

Tichy’s work seemingly starts off as an exploration of the maritime language that might accompany one on a journey to this corner of the world in the Shetland Islands; plentiful garnishes of “eider,” “voe,” “ayre,” and “afskod of breakers.” But just as fitfully as the language arrives, the readerly journey transforms into one of imaginative flourishing for the fowled landscape, these communal cliff faces. Time lapsed and I was lost in the pages picturing birds diving across the waves, returning, the sinking sun and drifts of herbs across a wind-battered land. What brought me back to the work again was names exemplified through the poem, “A Path Through Palmer, Ramke, Kettla Ness & Various Unsaid Sounds”:

here : a pile of rocks to mark
a hole, so boot can’t break
through seep to salt, nor world
collapse, nor lambs mire

Some seeps are holy
Some lambs die
Some pain can magnetize
the smallest mark
on the biggest map—

The titular and epigraphic elements in the work secure and buoy the reader, presenting one with the physical locations or individuals to work from, while the work delves into literal holes, deaths, and holy seeping.

The journey North | Rock | Edge details is both the emotional encounter with a chosen isolation and the physical implications of the landscape where this solitude occurs. These necessary privacies curate an environment where interpsychic dramas can be balmed. See, a remarkable part of Tichy’s work here is the communal diary—the bringing together of the companions she’d been reading or feeling, or who inspired her—into the poems themselves. Many of the readers she invokes—Niedecker, Howe—are individuals who have histories demanding certain levels of escape to bolster themselves before the blitz of misogyny and societal impetus for domestication. Tichy writes, “impenetrably ours the chance / of choice what language tries // to slip under : continental drift” in “Keen of Hamar | ‘What is the Name of That Place we Have Entered,’” and it is this vivacity—“impenetrably ours”—which I see getting to the heart of this camaraderie. One of the core arguments for North | Rock | Edge is this act of bringing along, the act of reading, as an act of sharing degrees of psychic freedom.

If it were possible to redeem decades of an individual’s pain by reading them more engagedly, I would hope readers would be significantly more valued. Instead of existing in this wondrous world of reading as a restitutional art, we exist in the institutional—rife with crevasse after crevasse of relationship-bounded knowledge and secretive yearning projected through generations of work. Tichy doesn’t seem to settle with such a limited and naïve understanding of sympathies, though. From the beginning, there’s an intentional display of language. It is a regionally identifying vocabulary, certainly—but the words are so enwrapped in linguistic clarity they become mechanisms of a deeper privacy. Multiple times throughout my readings I found myself wondering if Tichy had assigned herself the task of writing about a world to keep it from the ease of our knowing. A certain dialogue, a certain language, enables a land to remain hidden in spite of the gross oversaturation of conversation around it.

Secrecy, I do believe, is a core desire of this work. Numbers of anthropological and postcolonial studies discuss the various forms of language being used to retain traditional secrecy is an anti-colonial practice. I think of Sarah Ives, for instances, discussing the purpose of rumor in maintaining legacy in post-apartheid South Africa in her work, Steeped in Heritage:

Struggles over cosmologies can begin to account for contemporaneous ways of viewing the world. As such, multiple and contradictory rumors could simultaneously exist as narrative fact. Cosmologies can inform strategic and flexible ways of inhabiting the landscape, just as they can provide frameworks and structures. They were part of the articulation between people’s thoughts and larger sociopolitical, economic, and ecological events. Nevertheless, the ability to articulate these cosmologies in the form of a forceful rumor was linked to power. Dispossession could constrain and silence narrations that fell outside the dominant framework. . . . Through rumors, we not only see the world the way storytellers do; we also see the world the way they want us to see it.

In Tichy’s worldbuilding of the Shetland Islands, she seems to be exploring the world she wants us to see through this community engagement. Equally as vital to the titles of her poems, Tichy carefully dictates the path through North | Rock | Edge with date, place, and person at seemingly equal occurrences.

Inhabitance, for Tichy, means not only describing the physical sensation of being somewhere, but also the metaphysical sensation of who and what she is being with. Tichy writes in “With Moore & Niedecker on the North Sea | Seeing,”—“to sea, a seen surface / pierced / & parsed— / our lovely finite parentage—” to stress both the temporality and intimacy of inhabitance.

The Shetland Islands are an inspiration-rich region full of flora and fauna unbothered by human constraints. Paired with long-time cultural myths painting the land as the home of witchery, Tichy holds true to its secrecy and masterfully balances the need to represent with language the awe the land inspires. At its core, though, North | Rock | Edge seems to be submitting to the aqueous elements, akin to the wildlife the work makes habit of documenting. In “A Path Through Palmer, Ramke, Kettla Ness & Various Unsaid Sounds,” Tichy writes: “Beware a thought / untaught by walking : / it looks like land / but water owns it.” Achievements toward interconnectedness, diary, psychic integrity, evasion and isolation all I think are present in this work, and yet still I find myself drawn to the actual shape of the poems, the lineation, and the way that Tichy seems to represent the uncertain quality of secrecy at the very core of life.

About the Reviewer

Cody Stetzel is a PNW resident working within electrical engineering. He has worked as the managing editor for Five:2:One Magazine and is currently a staff book reviewer for Glass Poetry Press. He received his Masters in Creative Writing for Poetry from the University of California at Davis. His writing can be found previously in the Birmingham Arts Journal, Across the Margins, Boston Accent Literature, Aster(ix) Journal, Glass Poetry Press, and more. Find him on twitter or at his website.