‘System of Ghosts’ by Lindsay Tigue

by Kelly Cherry

System of Ghosts: Poems
by Lindsay Tigue
University of Iowa Press, $19.95, paperback, 71 pp.

Titles of poetry books seem to get wilder and wilder. For example, I can not imagine what is meant by System of Ghosts. How are ghosts systematic? Or are the ghosts part of a system that will be made clear to us? Well, nevermind. It is an enigmatic title that intrigues, and perhaps that is all that is necessary.

The author of System of Ghosts, Lindsay Tigue, entrances us with her poems about cities, railways, lost flora and fauna, geology and geography. An epigraph from a text called American Urban Form tells us that “[a]ll American cities began at the end of something: a trail, a landing along a river or lake, a railroad.” Immediately, Tigue has set us down in a country of distances and communities. We know where we are, but when are we? That varies.

Her book is built on three parts. The first section informs us that “It’s too easy too trust.” Tigue wants to investigate the country. She wants to know what’s going on, what went on; she wants “to see how the world is made.” These are ambitious goals, and she realizes them in poems that leap over logic and speak to our emotions, even to our memories or our TV-movie- and book-made memories of an earlier America. She does this while constructing the poems on particulars: a roommate, an urn, a traveling salesman. “How to Adjust to Time Zones” refers to the merger of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads and advises us thusly: “Hold your eyelids / wide open with your fingers./ Go outdoors at much as possible.”

Part II states upfront: “We are a System of Ghosts,” suggesting that time and space—life and where we live—are often fluid, at least in memory. Then there are the places that disappear via name change. “In the 1950s, single-family homes diffused on treeless plots near highway. So many residents could wake up and feel: nowhere.”

Buffalo hides and horns, cougars, dolphins, whales are an important part of this collection, waking us up to what we have lost by carelessness. Animals evoke our regrets and sense of shame; we know we have a responsibility to care for them and still we all too frequently fail them. “In Chernobyl,” Tigue writes, “wolves have returned, roaming the unpeopled streets. My friend tells me this as if she knows it’s what I need to hear.” It’s what we all need to hear. Are the wolves damaged, changed? Are they thriving? What do they eat? Are other species returning? Let’s hope the wolves are a promise of a better future.

Part III opens up to a new tone, a tone of perplexity, an awareness of perhaps unanswerable questions: “After the invention of telephones, what was it like to speak with familiar voices so many miles away? In “How to Measure the Weight of Snow” we learn that Chinese laid track for the Central Pacific under snow. The workers were trapped there, under tons of snow, and when spring melted the snow, they were found in situ, with their picks and shovels, frozen to death.

We read about White-Nose Syndrome in bats.

We learn that Ceres is the largest asteroid in the inner solar system.

In these poems, a series of lines may include a line or lines that are not part of the announced agenda. This is an effective strategy. It makes us alert; it involves us.

System of Ghosts is an unusual and lovely work. It received the Iowa Poetry Prize for 2015 and the prize was fully warranted. The poet must have done a fair amount of research, yet her poems do not allow the research to outweigh image, diction, phrasing, or meaning. I quite look forward to her next poetry collection, partly because I expect it to be strong and partly because I can’t imagine where she will go. She can, I believe, go wherever she wants to go. In the meantime, I hope other readers will remember the name Lindsay Tigue and find or buy or borrow or read over somebody’s shoulder System of Ghosts.

KELLY CHERRY has previously published twenty-two books (novels, stories, poetry, autobiography, memoir, criticism, essays, and reviews), nine chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. The most recent book is A Kind of Dream: Stories. Her newest full-length collection of poems, The Life and Death of Poetry, was published by L.S.U. Press in 2013 and her newest chapbook, a group of poems titled Vectors: J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Years before the Bomb, appeared from Parallel Press in December 2012. Other awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bradley Major Achievement (Lifetime) Award, a USIS Speaker Award (The Philippines), a Distinguished Alumnus Award, three Wisconsin Arts Board fellowships, two WAB New Work awards, the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for Distinguished Book of Stories in 1999 (2000), and selection as a Wisconsin Notable Author. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South. A former Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband live in Virginia.