University of Iowa Press
84 Pages; Print, $19.95
Winner of the 2015 Iowa Poetry Prize, Lindsay Tigue's debut poetry collection System of Ghosts is indeed filled with ghosts and the feeling of being haunted, the sense that we live in a state of continual loss. Ghosts, after all, are reminders of people we have lost who have returned to tell stories from the other side of the grave, to settle scores, to be sure we remember that they once lived and that we, too, will die. But Tigue's poems also are filled with life, with the smell of Irish coffee and Noxzema face wash, with once-in-a-lifetime meals of wine and pasta, with a class trip to an aquarium, with bike rides and crying children and trains and mountain passes. These are poems grounded in daily living, which makes the loss at their heart even more unsettling. Because Tigue writes a world we recognize, a world in which we struggle to exist in the present moment while knowing death is imminent, she also writes a loss we recognize—and prefer, most days, not to acknowledge.
These tensions between life and death, present experience and memory, shape every poem in System of Ghosts. In "To Disappear in Michigan" for example, Tigue writes, "New days mark new death," and in "Abandoned Places," she writes, "In Chernobyl, / wolves have returned, roaming / the unpeopled streets." It's no wonder that we describe ghosts as haunting, a word we also use to describe frequently visiting a place (as in, my old college haunt). The ghosts in Tigue's poetry are buildings (the collection includes four poems named "Abandoned Places"), landscapes, the former borders of a country, once-abundant bison hunted nearly to extinction, old lovers, and even our own fading memories. And they do, indeed, haunt. Like the wolves roaming Chernobyl's abandoned streets, these poems remind us that another life once existed, and they struggle to record that other life, even as it disappears.
Tigue sets the stage for the book's narrative voice and central themes in the second poem, "Directions." She writes:
Onesummer, when I worked at a park,visitors brought ashes. They carriedurns, wanting to leave people
in the mountains. One man walkedalong the road, tipped out
his canister right on the guardrail.Ashes sat there for days, so bone-whitein the rain. I wouldn't clear them away.I can be energy and wait.
The ashes are ghosts of loved ones, the remains of a life and a body that no longer exists. And yet, they have incredible staying power, remaining on the guardrail even through rain. The ashes are "so bone-white" because they are bone: the thing is itself, and also a description of itself.
Indeed, Tigue's skill at writing descriptive language is strong throughout, particularly in the surprising ways she juxtaposes images to create meaning, as well as to undermine and distort meaning. In the final lines of "Directions," Tigue writes,
The other day Idreamed of the person I might
miss most. He was dressed likea cell-phone salesman. He put his nose
to my cheek. The other day, I askedmy phone for directions to a place.
I didn't go. All day, a voice called out: Turn left.
Tigue uses this kind of associative leap—jumping from dreaming about someone who is dressed as a cell-phone salesman to asking a cell phone for directions—throughout her collection, which allows her poetry to feel expansive: even the most mundane moment moves outward in new and unexpected directions. This poem which begins, "Call it knowledge—/ wanting to see // how the world is made" ends with a voice calling out all day, "Turn left." This voice haunts the speaker, reminding her of a place she doesn't actually visit, but it also refers back to that opening line, the desire for knowledge, the desire to understand "how the world is made."
Undergirding the poems in System of Ghosts is a deep desire to know history...