Obsessively interrogating three hundred years of family history in Scotland and Maryland, Trafficke tracks and remixes questions of race and identity, fact and legend into a mosaic of verse, lyric prose, historical narrative, and quotation.
Twenty years in the making, Trafficke began with legends of origin, of persecution and survival, that cast their glamour—in the old Scottish sense of a spell, an illusion—over the poet’s ancestor, Alexander Magruder, obscuring the vicious reality of the family’s two hundred years of slave-owning in America. A Highland Scot transported to Maryland in 1652 as a prisoner of war, by the time of his death Magruder owned four indentured servants, twelve hundred acres of what had been Patuxent and Piscataway land, and one African man.
As Trafficke strips away the glamour, it takes shape not as a simple uncovering of truth, but as a dis-spelling, a building and tearing down of identity’s various disguises, of power’s relentless self-justification, of the poet’s bitterness and complicity. Stepping forward and backward in time, sampling texts that range from 16th c. Gaelic poetry to runaway slave advertisements, the narrative pulls readers through a many-layered critique of ownership and the timeless seductions of beauty. Violence and language, literacy and desire—these too are characters in the lyrical, fraught, and grief-charged text of Trafficke.
“Yeats orders others to ‘cast a cold eye’; Susan Tichy teaches herself to sustain ‘the long gaze of the vanishment.’ By pursuing her family history into vanishment, Tichy’s Trafficke discovers the backstory behind the backstory. By listening both to ‘something my mother told me’ and to ‘something she never told me,’ Tichy makes her gaze not cold, as Yeats instructs, but hard. She achieves the ‘rash exactitude’ that makes hers ‘the gaze / swept backward into pure rock.’ Trafficke is lithic and windswept, not so much written as hewn.” —Harvey Hix
Documentary, speculative, and lyric, Trafficke is a narrative woven from family myth, modern recovery, and historical documents (“prisoners lists and ladings”), a story uncovered in ballads, poems, and a “mother’s pencil.” Under every atrocity lies another hundred years of atrocity. “I saw my own hand holding something like a jigsaw piece,” Tichy writes, “unable to find a place on the map to set it down.” What begins as genealogical inquiry morphs into an investigation of the power of the written word under a free market economy to liberate and capture, to reveal and mask our complicated pasts (“Trafique is Earth’s great Atlas.”) Susan Tichy’s recounting of her family history in Scotland and Maryland is an unwavering pursuit across languages, homelands, and lineages for a truth beyond the “violence of revision.” —Susan Briante
“‘If ignorance is innocence / all is true all is false.’ Thus Trafficke plows under the surface of our collective amnesia and unearths a family past—beginning in Reformation Scotland, ending in slavery’s abolition in Maryland—that is our American past. History and myth, treachery and self-preservation, prose and verse collide and change places, caught in the dialectic eddies and splinters of Tichy’s luminous formal invention. This is a work of piercing lyric intelligence and fearless heart. Trafficke changes all the rules.” —Peter Streckfus
Cover design by Quemadura
Cover photo by Susan Tichy
§ § §
Review by Jon Curley, Galatea Resurrects, July 2016: be sure to read the comments, and Jon’s responses, and see what can happen when readers engage, speak up, and turn what could have been just another moment of American racial blindness into a real conversation. We all have to learn this way: the hard way, and sometimes in public. See my part in this exchange for proof I am not excluding myself from that indictment.
§ § §
Two excerpts from Martha Collins’ review/essay, “The Documented ‘I’,” Field: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics #94 (Spring 2016)–
While a number of white poets have dealt with race, no one I know has delved so determinedly and deeply into her own ancestry, partly in reference to oppressed “others”—first indigenous peoples, then African slaves—but also on its own terms.
Among the most moving parts of the book’s third section are listings of slaves themselves, copied (apparently) from lists of escaped slaves (“a likely, bright, Mulatto lad / a swaggering walk and very black / pretends to have an uncle, calls her wife”) and wills (“Clem, my blacksmith / Nanny, my servant, / my carpenter, Old Basil”). To come upon these longish lists, after the complex histories that have preceded them, is to arrive at what seems to be the emotional center of Trafficke—or, as the title of one of the poems has it, the “Purpose at My Booke.”
The journey to those lists, and then to the final section of Trafficke, is, as I’ve suggested, a complex one, but it’s well worth the effort. The final section, a prose poem in eight short unnumbered sections, achieves both sublimity and, in its direct address to Alexander Magruder [Tichy’s ancestor], a poignant intimacy. Like virtually everything else in the book, this poem is almost impossible to excerpt. But here is a moment—one that evokes one of the first lines of the book, quoted earlier:
Alexander, I tried to escape you, but you have made good on the family promise: survive, come back, gather by night where the day is dangerous. Your animal has tracked me down, your signal fire ignites in my eyes when I close them. I come when you call, back over a continent not fully mine, all the way down to the landing that bears your name: there a woman half black, half Indian, coughs into her hand an idea, and I have to watch.
As we do, while we read this wonderfully rich and challenging book. And re-read it, until Susan Tichy’s history becomes our own—as indeed it is.
§ § §
Many thanks to the editors of Apartment Poetry, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Evening Will Come, Green Mountains Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, Phoebe, Quarter After Eight, Quiddity, and Seneca Review, who published excerpts from the manuscript, sometimes in much earlier forms.
Apartment Poetry (2015): an excerpt from In Purpose at My Booke
Evening Will Come (2013): An excerpt from Hairst & a statement of poetics, “Equal Meadows,”both in the Mixed Form issue.
Quiddity: International Literary Journal & Public Radio Program (2015): A conversation with Tracy Zeman about Trafficke, with an excerpt from “In Purpose at My Booke.”