Poetry as ecstatic geology
On Susan Tichy's 'North|Rock|Edge'
Susan Tichy’s latest collection opens with an invitation:
Arriving, Stand Still
if you can, haul-to within
the terms of anguish
The place of arrival is an opening, “this rough coast a gate.” Nothing here is certain (“not map, no compass rose”) or still, the edges undefined. The invitation is just this: to arrive and to dwell in this uncertainty and motion; to look and not to “miss a single / wave’s decay” (3).
The place is Scotland’s Shetland Islands, 110 miles north of mainland Scotland, an archipelago carved by eons of ice and flood, battered by wind and water crossing thousands of miles of ocean — what Tichy described in an interview as “weather-land/water-land.”
Tichy is a longtime visitor to Scotland, with a deep interest in its land-based artists, but had never been to Shetland until 2017, when she spent two weeks walking what she calls its “extraordinarily visible” geology — a trait the islands share with her beloved home in the Rocky Mountains. In 2019, a long writing residency at The Booth, an artists’ studio on Scalloway Harbor, allowed her to develop an intimacy with the islands’ rocky coasts and eroding shores.
To walk the coasts of Shetland is to experience the physical manifestation of vast distances “as boot reports each wave / arriving” (4). The body, through the boot, registers the impact of wave on rock, driven by winds in a chain of connection “air-to-water-to-rock-to-bone,” which renders the body of the speaker, and therefore the reader, part of the weather-land/water-land: “your will becomes its instrument” (4).
This immersion in place is also an immersion in time — the deep time of geology, written visibly into the ice-and-wave-scoured cliffs: “the sea / & the rock / eating each other / into form”(6). The geological features of the Shetland Islands include bits of Earth’s mantle thrust up from the ocean floor, as well as rock torn from what is now eastern North America when the continents split. The result, Tichy notes in an unpublished interview with the poet Tracy Zeman, is that “rock blurs the categories of time and space by making time visible and space temporal.”
The effect of this spatial and temporal blurring seems to move the poet toward a moment of enargeia. The British scholar David Farrier, who teaches at the University of Edinburgh and has found similar inspiration in Scotland’s geological features, writes that enargeia is the Greek term for a flash of clarity that allows a person to glimpse the vastnesses enfolded in the present moment.
The clarity that arrives involves the realization that all is flux and flow, including oneself. Farrier writes: “From the perspective of very deep time, the most intractable rocks appear as fragile as eggshells, as free-flowing as water” (14). Or as Tichy put it in an interview with Kathryn Winograd, place is less a fixed location than “an intersection of forces that I happen to encounter (and take part in).”
Taking part in a place through poetry results, in this case, in a form that Tichy describes to Winograd as “embodied movement, the demands and ecstasies of walking Shetland’s coasts.” Tichy tells Tracy Zeman, “I arrived at the form by creating it, abandoning others that felt unrelated to the landscape or its foot-feel.” The poems are as minutely crafted as waves working stone, with sonically rich, incantatory lines, minimally punctuated, driven by rhythm, white space, and line breaks:
A shatter of sea crow-blue
then metal-bright as winter sun
clouds clears over once-
valleys salt-light flooded
coiled from inner coast
to outer—a thousand miles
of salt-path wander up wicks
& voes firths & bays : find rock
enough to stand in the middle (11)
The immersion is textual as well as physical. Other poets accompany Tichy everywhere she goes. She carries books and printed poems as she walks, and she composes using a technique she calls “coring,” in which she reads vertically, rather than horizontally, from a poet’s work, drawing out words as a geologist might draw out an ice core sample. This, Tichy tells Winograd, is “a way of sampling a poet’s diction, as well as both alluding to and departing from the whole of the source poem.” It is a poetic geology that is additive rather than extractive — the source poet’s language and context remain visible in the work through direct references, italics, and notes to the poems — the way that the veins of one type of rock might intrude into another, making legible their entwined histories.
The movement toward enargeia requires, paradoxically, both immersion and separation — a making strange, a seeing anew. For Tichy, this meant travel to the Shetland Islands, a place unfamiliar to her, leading to a new form, new ways of working with words. It also means new words: Shetlandic terms for the landscape erupt into the poems. The reader unfamiliar with these terms may find themself disoriented, without a stable rock to stand on, without a map. This echoes the “demands and ecstasies” Tichy describes in walking this landscape. The strangeness, the uncertainty, demands attention and care; it requires looking again, pausing.
The word ecstasy comes from two Greek roots that mean to be “out of one’s place.” One stands outside of oneself, and one is also, in a way, dismantled, taken apart. Perhaps in part because of the disorientation of the place, its newness, and its constant motion, the poems are shaped less by a unitary speaker and more by the embodied experience. The word “I” appears in the book only once, and that is in a cored sample of language from the poet George Oppen, which speaks to the frustrated desire for certainty, for the comfort of familiarity and settled knowledge: “I had hoped to arrive at an actuality” (21).
This is, perhaps, the source of both the anguish and the ecstasy at the heart of this work and its invitation to the reader: to participate in the uncertainty, the provisional quality that is not only the ebb and flow of mortal life, but also our moment of planetary crisis. The devastations of the Anthropocene haunt the edges of these poems as they haunt the Shetlands. Human pollution is here:
a storm-edge marked
fish line, plastic in-
from the real it came
to kill (15)
And there are the all-pervading “terms of anguish” (3) by which many live in the Anthropocene, cognizant of the destruction the human species wreaks and the anxiety it carries:
We cannot know :
land before fear
as in prior
to speak before
This is the demanding part: the scale of the planetary crisis challenges the human ability to speak of it, to even imagine it. The invitation is to dwell anyway, to, in Donna Haraway’s words, “stay with the trouble,” to look without looking away.  We are compelled by the ethical demands of the future (and of the past and their intermingling) to look and to know, to attend to our reality and our own entanglements in it. The reasons are twofold and themselves entangled: first, knowing our own “bright, unbearable reality,” as Farrier puts it, quoting the poet Alice Oswald, empowers humans to change it, to chart a new course.
Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, the knowing that comes from attending with patience and care brings a joy that exceeds the small bounds of a mortal self — it is ecstatic. There is an ethics to this joy. As Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it: “I choose joy over despair … because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.” Returning the gift means not just knowing but feeling the wonder and the anguish of a world and its wounds and being moved to act out of that feeling.
There is something irreducible in Tichy’s poems; they do the work that only poetry can do, through sound and rhythm and meaning. In doing so, the poems touch something that is beyond logic and even beyond emotion, something elemental — the conviction that as a physical being, one participates in all that is material, “that rock lives in every cell.” It is here, when “the moment quivers” (47), that ecstasy in its original sense of “beyond or outside oneself” arrives: one feels oneself less a solitary being and more a part of matter’s unending ebb and flow. One is home, woven into that whole.