Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Poem366: SYSTEM OF GHOSTS by Lindsay Tigue

Have you ever taken a test in a dream? You show up in dream-class and discover there’s a major exam that day, worth most of your grade, and you’d forgotten about it—didn’t study.

Panic sets in. You look at the questions, and nothing about them seems familiar. You begin to wonder how you could have missed so much. You’re not even sure if the test is in your language.

Lindsay Tigue’s Iowa Poetry Prize-winning collection, System of Ghosts (University of Iowa Press, 2016), feels like the answer key to a dream test. Or maybe it’s the answer bank—on the left are inscrutable questions, and on the right is the info found in Tigue’s poems, waiting to be circled and connected to close the loop.

I get this sense partly because of the beautifully random information in Tigue’s writing. Craig Morgan Teicher, the judge who selected this manuscript for the prize, describes her perfectly as “magpielike.” He writes, “Lindsay Tigue has, first and foremost, a curious mind: Her poems are motored by information. Bits of knowledge, gathered magpielike, which others might consider trivia, […] spur these poems toward startling personal and public insights.”

I love snippets of information that is brand new to me. Trivia functions as image sometimes, and enriches poems in this way. I like the start of “Bliss,” a poem about cars and roadways and how we get around.

You know, they had traffic
in ancient Rome and in 1769,
Nicolas Cugnot built a steam-powered

gun carriage. He ran it into a wall.
In 1899, in New York City, Arthur Smith
hit H.H. Bliss, the first American pedestrian

killed by car. …

That is how the poem begins—with a layering of fact that sets the reader up for the ending (just after Tigue’s factoid about why traffic lights are in the colors red and green):

I see us entering the earliest crosswalk,
the semaphore arm raised. And later—

illuminated at night—those fog-edged
boxes glowing instruction. We can’t even
trust ourselves to look both ways.

And that’s Tigue: offering information that may be unimportant or may, in fact, be vital, be on the dream test, and then it turns out all those facts were going somewhere worth being. She has nailed me there, at the busy intersection, not trusting my bearings, looking for instruction. And I got there via ancient Rome.

One project of the book feels like it is to locate the self. In the title poem, “We Are a System of Ghosts,” Tigue writes,

… Most days, half the mail I get is for others.
Or, it isn’t even addressed to a name:

Current Resident. I pile it all in a shoebox and keep it
up, away on a shelf. …

That feels like a clue, but it’s to a mystery you didn’t even know you were Nancy-Drewing.

Another clue shows up in “Elevator,” my favorite poem in the collection. Tigue sets up a scenario where a person gets on her elevator and confesses to her that he sometimes hits the alarm button repeatedly. “Nothing will happen, he’s told her. // “No one will come.” He explains that the elevator opened to “a room of desks. // Suited people have raised their heads.”

Writes Tigue,

Yesterday, at group therapy,
she was made to repeat:

I am worthy. She’s had to do
this every week. She thought it

stupid until it wasn’t.
Maybe next time after saying it—

I am worthy—she’ll remember the faces
beyond the elevator. Their asking: who

is sounding this alarm?

As in the poem “Abandoned Places,” featuring a child’s grave about to be overtaken by water (“Forget me not // is all I ask,” the tombstone reads), Tigue’s voice cries out to be observed, remembered, noted, and valued.

But it’s not entirely glum. I love the optimism at the ending of “Solitary, Imaginary”:

These days, I live alone
and sit near a computer. All day
I stare. And when the electricity goes out
with its slapped silence,

I act like I’m not thrilled, that I don’t love
to meet neighbors in the street. Do you
have power? I ask. Do you have light?

Tigue, it may definitively be said, has both.

An interview with Lindsay Tigue …

What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?

I wanted to be a geologist, though I thought that essentially meant appreciator of rocks. I was obsessed with the geology lessons in elementary school and had a pretty serious rock collection going.

What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.

Wires. It's the last word and I changed it pretty late in the game. It's the single word that seemed to change the most for me in terms of seeing the collection as having an ending.

Describe your worst poetic habit.

My worst poetic habit is letting too much else get in the way of writing more.

It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.

Cats. I know there are probably already anthologies about cats, but there can always be more.

It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry. [Your name] was a poet of/who/with …

Lindsay Tigue was a poet of curiosity, one who always appreciated strange and quiet beauty.

Lindsay Tigue won the Iowa Poetry Prize for her first book, System of Ghosts (University of Iowa Press, 2016) and her work appears in Prairie SchoonerIndiana ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference and has received a James Merrill fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Georgia.

Editor's note: This is the Jan. 4 installment of Poem366 (#4 out of 366 entries this year). If you are a poet or publisher who would like for me to consider a title, I am happy to accept physical copies (printouts are fine) of recent books. At this time I'm considering only full-length collections published by established presses (no self-published work). Feel free to mail a copy to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804.

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