The Avalanche Path in Summer

The Avalanche Path in Summer is a muscle-memory of rock and word laid down in a lifetime of mountain walking, mountain thinking, and a body’s failings. Like the contradictory forces convened in its title, the collection evokes both place and time, history and the rupture of history, where poems resemble the mountains they set before us and whose representation they alternately embrace and disown.

In a southern Rocky Mountain avalanche path, tumbled boulders and beheaded trees testify to snow’s destructive power, while chest-high waves of flowers manifest the life it brings to a drought-and-fire-torn landscape. A body, too, is a place of intersecting forces, through which we perceive and encounter the world—hence the need to move, to walk as an act of perception. Line by line, the poems move by ear, by breath, by stride, and by how those embodied responses alter with terrain, footing, altitude, health, age, and weather. Like a walk, syntax can be neither made nor apprehended in an instant, but only through movement and only in time, accreting structure as a series of intersections by which actual mountains and ideas about mountains circulate—like the arguments of geologists, artists, and mountaineers, whose contradictory, co-existing truths crisscross a landscape they never stop seeking, and never possess.

Poems make multiple truths possible, but always present, for me, is the gap between being there and thinking about being there—for, as Wang Wei says (in the Hinton translation): Looking out from distant city walls / people see only white clouds. The allure of a landscape that stills thought forms part of the mythos of mountains; but for those of us who live here, a car high-centered in mud ruts is no less iconic than a snowy ridge glowing in starlight. The presence-in-absence evoked by the book’s title—the near and far, here and gone—includes the potential for violent death in mountains, and the absolute violence of geological change, whether over great time or instantaneous, as the root of what we find beautiful in extreme landscapes.

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There are mountains known by the mind and mountains known by the body, and in Susan Tichy’s The Avalanche Path in Summer, these two kinds of mountains meet in poems as precise as the placement of a hiker’s boots as she edges along a narrow ledge. Wrought from deep reading and long intimate acquaintance with the southern Rocky Mountains, this book-length series of meditations splices the choicest passages from its chosen archive of mountain literature with the embodied knowledge that arises from living in a place whose scale far exceeds the human. Condensed into tight musical lines, the resulting poems are as ribbed by pressure as orogenic uplift, and as clear to the eye as streams fed by snowmelt. Taken together, they posit a kind of mountain epistemology as relational and contingent as weather, a way of knowing that’s site specific, seasonal,  and alert to injury and mortality. I’ve always been awed by the intellectual, aesthetic, and moral power of Susan Tichy’s rigorous poems – with The Avalanche Path I can add that I’m awed by their physical vulnerability, acute ecological observation, and spiritual wisdom. —Brian Teare  

The poet juxtaposes her own phrases and narratives alongside fragments from British sources such as John Ruskin, Nan Shepherd, and Robert Macfarlane, and lines of Chinese poetry in the Daoist and Buddhist traditions. While its syncretism may recall Gary Snyder, this book privileges body over text, “One foot/ in front of the other foot, crossing the force// of stunted bristlecone.” The poem functions as a seismograph, as if both the terrain and the human body that scrabbles over its surfaces and missteps occasionally (“Palm-path-pain/ step-stop-stipple,”) are as fragile and as contingent as the pages we hold in our hands, “memorizing the slope like a book I know/ will burn.” – Publisher’s Weekly

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Cover design by Quemadura

Cover photo by Susan Tichy

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