Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

Susan Tichy on Jane Augustine’s Traverse

One of the joys of Autumn has been wandering the nearly 700 pages of Jane Augustine’s Traverse: Collected Poems 1969 to 2019. Paradoxically filled with Augustine’s light touch, brief lines, and white-space silences, the volume manages to be both monumental and warmly open, crossing what Andrew Schelling has called the “wry vernacular” of Objectivism with a woman’s intimate eye.

Spare, unselfconscious, nearly transparent, Augustine’s poems reach out to the things of this world like a ship whose constant soundings describe its own location. No part of her lived experience is excluded, so a reader may find herself meditating on a painting, carrying a backpack, searching for a homeless man under a scaffold, or pulled suddenly back to a parent’s death-night twenty years before. Witnessing may be delicate—as when rain during drought:

    freshens grass-tips, not
    deeper

“Rain”

or brutally physical and female, as when

    gloved hands
    lift out the baby

    blood    mucus    pain
    alive—

    the mother laid
    open helpless—

    my body mine—
    alive

    on the street
    in hard light

“Incident”

The southern Colorado Rockies are a touchstone—her beloved Sangre de Cristo range, where the self is drawn out into Earth’s unending thingness, till stillness and motion become interchangeable, a syntax waterfalling down uneven levels of line toward insightful pause.

                                     No pressure to move the mind

    which doesn’t slow any more than
                     the exuberant diamond chilling
                                     stream rests. It sends

    its overflow into calm shallows.

“At the Aspen Stump Again”

At once completely matter and completely spirit, the range and its waters form a living, touchable presence through births and wars, travel and aging, a son’s drug addiction, a daughter-in-law’s slow death from cancer.

    Red-brown fluid dribbles from the
                      corner of her mouth into the kidney-shaped basin.
    I empty it repeatedly
            into the mauve plastic bowl
            beside me on the floor

    until I can’t stand to look
    down into that little lake
                      of darkness deep as the world.

“A Tomb for Michelle”

Whether here at death’s bedside, walking in Paris, or waking under mountain-clear stars, Augustine’s words tend to touch and move on, enacting her Buddhist perception that motion and intersection give rise to all things, including both insight and art—that “skewed composure / of what isn’t yet mastered” (“In Provence, Near Venasque: Le Beaucet”). Through multiple landscapes and changing moods, this openness of form allows attention to alight where it will, at times with a Marianne Moore-like pinch of wit, as in this invitation to put on:

    a shirt bright as bougainvillea
    and white summer sandals
    to walk the city

    whose sewers one may
    visit

“In Paris Again”

or this moment on a plane about to take off, when a sense of enclosure and the upcoming birth of a grandchild fuse:

    the way the blood-rush circles
    through the amnion, nourishes
    the baby to come—the souffle
    of waves, of airconditioning—
    audible through the stethoscope
    held to the pregnant woman’s belly

“Takeoff, Taking In”

For readers new to Augustine, the biggest surprise will be flipping a page to arrive at the opening of Krazy: Visual Poems & Performance Scripts, a 2015 volume that rescued from the age of slide projectors, tape recorders, and typewriters an ephemeral chapter of 20th century feminist poetics. Unpublishable until the age of scanners, these Concrete poems and vocal scripts are difficult to excerpt, requiring a reader’s interaction to conjure the playful borderlands of eye, ear, and performance. As in the original edition, each visual poem is paired with the text or script that follows on the reverse page, a sequence that requires our attention to rest in the visual before escaping to more familiar and voiceable forms.

“Form,” original image, courtesy of Jane Augustine

This visual interlude reminds me to mention Traverse’s many ekphrastic poems, whether formal meditations like “Draughtsmanship, or What Is Not in the Portrait”, in which “Albrecht Dürer with one hand drew the other finely,” or random encounters with shop-worn icons of culture, as when:

    Our Lady in dulled aura
    of uncleaned gold opens

    accepting hands over the
    holy book and microphone.

“Notre Dame de Blanc-Manteaux”

More intimately related to Krazy are poems that reflect on or imagine performances, such as “Live Painting,” in which the moment of creation—performed live on “thick paper… / cut from a human-body-size / sheet” trembles with beauty, playfulness, and terror.

                      So we went on
                      the painter first
    fearless of course
    bold black, porcelain turquoise,
                      that Chinese stroke
                                        and the poet
                                        in terror
    to make a mark.

“Live Painting”

Since wandering a text grants permission to turn in most any direction, I’ll bring us back to what I think of as classic Jane Augustine—a mountain, a tree, the play of black ink against white page, and the quietest, world-touching light of her attention:

                                                        Consciousness
                                                                        doesn’t make much
    of itself, touches
                      lightly, breaks off,
                                        resumes.

    Evergreens spread
                      dry needles, a sign
                                        that  they live
    for a while.

“Once More at Rosita Cemetery”

Writing Prompt

Write a poem that uses Tichy’s description of Jane Augustine’s verse as its own: “spare, unselfconscious, nearly transparent. . .”

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Susan Tichy

Susan Tichy

Susan Tichy is the author of seven books, most recently North|Rock|Edge (Parlor Press, 2022), a walker’s encounter with the coasts of Shetland, and The Avalanche Path in Summer (Ahsahta Press, 2019), a muscle-memory of a life in mountains. Her 2015 volume, Trafficke (Ahsahta Press), 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. Her work has been published in the US, UK, and Australia, and been recognized by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, residencies at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat, and numerous other awards. She continues to research slavery in Maryland, with a focus on assisting descendants to identify their enslaved ancestors. 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. https://susantichy.com  https://magruderslanding.com