Both There and Here: Walks on the Edge

Susan Tichy with Margaret “Peggy” Yocom
Tuesday 25 July 2017, 19.00

Join poet Susan Tichy who will read from her forthcoming book, The Avalanche Path in Summer, and speak briefly about her new project, NORTH/ROCK/EDGE, which has brought her from America to Sutherland. Both focus on rapidly changing edge spaces—mountains, coastlines, and North Atlantic islands – and explore through language the practical and sensory experience of travelling through these spaces.

The folklorist, poet, and storyteller Margaret “Peggy” Yocom will also tell a traditional tale, “The Black Laird and the Mossy Green Boat,” that invites us to cross boundaries of time and geography.


The Avalanche Path in Summer was written from two streams of influence: the practical and sensory experience of walking in mountains and our cultural ideas about mountains, inherited from both European and Daoist traditions. In the poems, the meaning of a mountain is built up through layers of language for both the mountains under our feet and the mountains that inhabit our minds.

In a Southern Rocky Mountain avalanche path, the actual and the imagined can be experienced as one: tumbled boulders and shattered, beheaded trees testify to snow’s destructive power, while a chest-high ocean of flowers makes visible the life-force it brings to an arid landscape—each force always holding its opposite as an absent presence.

Tichy’s poems move in rhythms conditioned by ear, by breath, by stride, and by how those embodied responses vary with terrain, footing, altitude, health, age, and weather. This sensory and somatic experience of place affects conceptualization of movement and intersection; of structure and materiality; of pain, fear, and risk; of selfhood in relation to nature and to language. Increasingly, this awareness is conditioned by a kind of vertigo: a perception of time becoming space, and place becoming no more than a moment of time, as geological displacements keep deep time visible, indistinguishable from environment.

This is particularly acute on the poet’s home ground, the Colorado Sangre de Cristo, a fault block uplift range: high, jagged, and displaying on its surface the vivid evidence of its own making. Increased awareness of what we are actually walking on, and through, makes place less a fixed location than an intersection of forces we happens to take part in. Yet a body, too, is a place of intersecting forces, a place of existence, creating both a there and a here through which we perceive and encounter the world—hence the need to move, to walk as an act of perception.

In her home landscape, Tichy walks each summer through miles of dead and dying forest, marked with wildfire scars. Drought-stressed trees succumb to insects and disease, the living struggling to feed the dying through root systems and soil, until all perish. In a midsummer aspen grove stripped of every leaf, dying caterpillars can lie so thick that the air reeks of rotting meat. Alternating with drought, the warming climate brings massive summer storms and prolonged monsoons that can collapse whole mountainsides. In winter, snowfall becomes erratic, so unreliable that new trees grow in the avalanche paths, while increasingly early melting of the winter snowpack alters every downstream habitat.

We are privileged, Tichy believes, to witness environmental change on this scale, happening not in deep time but in human time. This is not meant to trivialize the effects of global warming, nor to downplay the human and nonhuman suffering that comes with rapid environmental change; but, rather, to observe the historical rarity of our position, as well as the responsibilities of a witness.

Always present in the poet’s mind 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.

In Tichy’s poems, collage composition allows contradictory and contested perceptions to co-exist. Textual fragments are layered into the poem to create contrasting textures and shifting registers. The parallel with geological phenomena is obvious, though the metaphor is perhaps too quickly exhausted. More compelling is that the space between objects is full of energy, uncertainty, and change. Movement from line to line carries a reader in and out of concrete representation, in and out of language play, constantly shifting among factual, sensory, narrative, and abstract information, becoming, like the concept of place, a series of intersections.

In The Avalanche Path in Summer, the poet occupies an insider position, as a long-time walker and resident of high mountains, one for whom a car high-centered in mud ruts is no less iconic than a snowy ridge glowing in moonlight. For the Timespan audience, her here is there.

NORTH/ROCK/EDGE will keep Tichy in a traveler’s position, a perpetual visitor to the North Atlantic—from North Carolina barrier islands to Sutherland, Shetland, Iceland, and beyond—making Timespan’s here part of her evolving there.


Susan Tichy is the author of five books, most recently Trafficke (Ahsahta Press, 2015), a mixed-form investigation of family, race, and language, spanning from Reformation Scotland to the abolition of slavery in Maryland. Her poems and mixed-genre works have been recognized by the National Poetry Series, the National Endowment for the Arts, a Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, residencies at Sweeney’s Bothy and at Hawthornden Castle, and numerous other awards. She teaches in the BFA & MFA programs at George Mason University and when not teaching lives in a ghost town in the Colorado Rockies, where she writes mountain/walking/drought/geology/wildfire poems, some of which are forthcoming in a new volume, The Avalanche Path in Summer.

Margaret “Peggy” Yocom grew up listening to her grandparents’ stories in the Pennsylvania German farm country of the United States. Associate Professor Emerita of English at George Mason University, she founded the Folklore Studies program and taught there for 36 years. She specializes in oral narrative and storytelling, including the supernatural; material culture; family folklore; and folklore and creative writing. Peggy holds a PhD from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has published on such topics as the tales of the Inuit of northwestern Alaska, her Pennsylvania family, and the Brothers Grimm. She has also written about the folk arts of loggers and homemakers in western Maine, for this region has been her major field research area since 1975. A book of her poetry will be published in 2018 by Deerbrook Editions. She serves as vice-president of Western Maine Storytelling and tells stories to local audiences.