Book Review

The Avalanche Path in Summer is a departure in subject for Susan Tichy. She takes her exacting attention to language and her collaged and textually layered lines—wielded in previous volumes to dissect the landscape of war or to interrogate issues of race, identity, and her own family’s complicity in the transatlantic slave trade—and applies them to the terror and awe of mountains. In The Avalanche Path in Summer, Tichy writes about the “mountains of the mind,” mountains rendered in pencil and paint, and the actual mountains she has traversed for decades. She writes in “Long Walk After Too Little Sleep,” “from a thermos— / white breath— // ‘at a point from which / one might turn back’ // buttercup riding / the toe of my boot / boot leather scarred / by a stumble.” Tichy uses a poetics of movement, transformation, and measure—in stride and boot—to take the reader through a changing and unstable landscape.

The reader is introduced to many of the book’s key themes in the first poem, “Route Sketched on a Map, as if Walking.” Themes like: walking and the body (“Yet, like the body, a walk / exists only as it happens), natural beauty and violence (“at the depth of snow, their scattered trunks / awash in a lake of flowers”), maps and measurement (“a mingling of topography and math, / or footsteps with quotations”), and pain and uncertainty (“For after paradise comes the body, / with ‘all its goddamn ups and downs—’”). Finally, she introduces the theme of memory and time:

clouds on the move (‘like weeds
in a river current’), and a dozen moraines
thrown about in a kind of frenzy.
I remember it all, the view was splendid,
and I’ve marked the spot where,
‘struggling to remember
where she put her foot on the way up,’
the dog crawled into my rucksack to sleep.

Tichy catalogs the mountains’ geological composition, while splicing it with the speaker’s personal struggle with pain. External machinations of deep time intertwine with the body’s internal processes in present time—the rock streaked with red mirroring the body infiltrated with pain. In “‘Beyond Temporary, Like Snow Flurry,’” from the second section of the book, “Certainty,” she writes:

sensation caught like a single pebble
snatched on the journey from mud to shale
shale to schist: just try
to make of pain an offering
laid at the shrine of upright walking :

And later:

shrine to danger, shrine to time
in which dark veins are pure :
the bleed is rosy, invades host rock
—or so says the geologue
of fracture, of fault, of a body’s
internal thrashing :

The volume contains numerous heavily collaged poems textured with shifting registers and quotations lifted from her vast source materials such as John Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Volume IV: Of Mountain Beauty, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, and many others. “A Ghost,” in the book’s third section, is one of three longer split-page poems where short lines of text begin on the right-hand side and then shift to the left about halfway down the page. “A Ghost” reads like footfall, the movement of a body down or up a mountain by way of a series of switchbacks:

backwards as forwards
long slopes of debris

‘rest your hand on a book
so to hold the pen long’

‘dressing the action in gallant attire’
(one hat, searched for

on the second day)
the grieving bring a photograph

‘made chocolate sherbet
in the summer snow’

not summer snow     but summit snow
not summit snow     but summit

—it’s a verb
trail worn into the white rock

‘one had to cross an expanse of sea’
spatter of rain and a gull feather

caught in my jacket zipper
it’s far from home     and I

—it’s a verb
trail worn into the white rock

‘one had to cross an expanse of sea’
spatter of rain and a gull feather

caught in my jacket zipper
it’s far from home     and I

Her line-work throughout these split-page pieces gives her poems a slow careful movement, reminiscent of Lorine Niedecker. Tichy employs a “not this, but that” chiastic construction throughout the book, which is the defining device in some poems and seems to demonstrate her claim that “at every switchback, the view changes.” Her “not this, but that” constructions create a shifting world where everything becomes something else, multiplying meaning, and destabilizing our senses. She creates an avalanche of phrases, which, like mountains, are connected but ever moving “backwards as forwards / long slopes of debris.”

In the book’s final section, “Other Lives,” she writes more directly about war, tea, and the influence of Chinese mountain poetry. These subjects and the book’s overarching themes intermingle with colloquial speech, drawings and paintings, paths and routes, mountain species, scree, and snow. The shifts in register and source are often abrupt, and she frequently alters the meaning of two similar lines with only a slight word or punctuation change. In “Rockfall on a Cliff Hidden by Trees,” she writes:

‘With other views of the horrid kind’
With views entirely of the horrid kind
A close-up painting of warriors on blood-stained heather
(butterflies apparently licking salt)
‘Or have I quietly assumed that we saw everything?’
A trail at morning, the merest it was
Set on quaint grounds of barred colour
like bearings on a shield
A trail at morning, the merest ‘it was’
Rockfall, on a cliff hidden by trees

The arc of the book is one spent living in and thinking about mountains where the landscape is mapped in drawings, traced through walks, experienced through pain, defined in books, and remembered with past companions—human and animal. Tichy’s mountain meditation is a reflection on the natural processes of a specific landscape, how our bodies inhabit that landscape, and how human actions affect ecosystems: “Indian paintbrush, one blood-red—my totem— // memorizing the slope like a book I know / will burn. And then / we’re headed downhill through the stream again / our boots, as always rearranging rock.”

About the Reviewer

Tracy Zeman’s first book, Empire, recently won the 2018 New Measures Poetry Prize at Free Verse Editions. Her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Chicago Review, TYPO, and other journals. Currently, she is a freelance writer and editor for a number of conservation organizations in the Midwest. She lives outside Detroit, Michigan with her husband and daughter.