Bone Pagoda by Susan Tichy
(Ahsahta Press Books, Boise, ID, 2007)
Revisiting both collective and personal memories of the Vietnam War, Susan Tichy’s Bone Pagoda opens immediately with a very strong and evocative statement, delivered in a rather arresting epistolary style:
Mang Thit River, February 2000
I would call the poem What I Did Not See. It would begin in the multiplied shade of the outdoor restaurant, the one we came to lost, and accidental, ten hours on the water, our interpreter already tired of the whole thing. The edge of the poem would be its bamboo fence, that and a hand-made roof, patched with plastic where it had to be, enlisted in the cause of something real: a sense of place, a sense of time, the body sweating in its plastic chair, holding out for a cold beer, or a slight rhyme. To write this I would need a photograph, to know the man wore a loose clean shirt, with a neat hem, and would, in the ordinary course of things, stand not quite to your shoulder.
(From ‘‘Couplet’’, p. 1)
Subtly, the poet sets an elegiac tone for a difficult subject that means to her more than personal importance: Vietnam War. Her elegiac voice is not simply elegiac, however, since what that she writes about are true emotions, honest observations, as well as profound interrogations arising from losses. Losses that are painful and for quite a long time, repressed.
Bone Pagoda is essentially a book of poems that resounds with catastrophic losses of bodies, spaces, and ideals related to the Vietnam War. ‘‘If you are not war what are you? say’’ is a line that appears both at the beginning and the end; it defines most of the work’s spirits and theme. What strikes most is the poet’s choice of aesthetics in rendering the verb ‘‘say’’ towards more dramatic nuances : tell, dictate, state, specify, cry, scream, moan, order… The unexpected swings in tempo and rhythm adds to the drama beneath the words. Short and long verses are syncopated with one-word utterances, or interrupted by collages of registered quotations from various individuals evoking their war memories. Such an arrangment has a felt effect on language and energy: the poems can read by themselves, and do not need to be read in order to read, for they have a real voice that speaks.
‘‘To articulate the past historically,’’ Walter Benjamin emphasizes, ‘‘means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger… to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger.’’ (Theses on the Philosophy of History, p. 255) That Susan Tichy has decided upon a collage form to present the different voices speaking about the Vietnam War seems to be an effort that advocates Benjamin’s belief. The collage that Tichy has created in ‘‘Street’’, for example, flashes up different moments of danger, in which different voices counterpoint on the same page. A precise fragment of memory is preserved in each voice, although all voices do not originate from a common chronology:
‘Develop discord,’ Hoover said
And I distort, disjunct, obey
‘In this stage of structured confrontation’
Speech comprised of equal parts
‘Maintain a level of violence in the language’
The bombing, I mean, etcetera
‘So you can’t ever exactly lose’
‘For peace for human love’
To death on the steps
Of the Pentagon
O Plain imperfect small machine
‘Men do not sham’
‘Bombing that little pissant country up there’
‘As long as art is mimetic
It is loss’
(From ‘‘Street’’, p.38-39)
The last borrowed voice from the above-mentioned extract is particularly poignant: it suggests that articulating a memory or an emotion related to the war can never possibly be as oblique as one thinks. ‘‘Words carved are a metaphor/ I can’t read can touch’’ (‘‘Swerve’’, p. 50). Should this be true, Tichy’s endeavor in piecing together voices — both haunting and alive —‘‘assorted pieces of trash/ And scrap metal picked from their bodies’’ (‘‘River’’, p. 63) is therefore a considerable act of courage.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain publishes poetry and non-fiction under the nom-de-plume, Greta Aart. Some of her poetry are forthcoming in New Politics, Santa Clara Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, etc. Also a musician and theatre artist, she is currently an editor (Poetry/Non-fiction) of Emprise Review. She lives in Paris, France. (fionasze.com)