Review: Lindsay Tigue's System of Ghosts

Dan Chu

In the first poem from System of Ghosts—winner of the 2015 Iowa Poetry Prize—Lindsay Tigue writes, “Most of my knowledge gets turned, or upset.” Knowledge, or more accurately fact, serves as an invitation into many of Tigue's poems. But these aren't just empty facts that might win Jeopardy or your local pub's Trivia Night. “New Year” begins with Wilbur of Wright Brothers fame saying, “he did not have time for both / a wife and an airplane.” Tigue has a storyteller's eye for digging up the roots of trivia; she uses them to fasten together the poem’s emotional nerves. These bits of information often contain an element of wonder or surprise—I found myself pausing often to consider the trivia's suggestions, deeper implications, or consequences. After I read, “When the Union Pacific / and the Central Pacific / formed one railroad, more / than 8,000 towns / used local time,” I stopped to visualize mini universes on the frontier, each losing their own unique time zones to standardization.

In many of Tigue's poems, the personal bounces off of the factual, usually in alternating lines or stanzas—“Now my sister lives / two hours behind me. / My brother one hour / ahead” comes after and before stanzas of facts, written in a neutral tone: "In the 1870s, railroads / created bureaus, sent agents / east, to Europe, attracting / settlers to this land." At first, I thought these facts sought to explain the personal, or vice versa. But now I think the facts and the personal are a continuation of each other, especially given Tigue's focus on chronological dates in this work. In System of Ghosts, it seems we don't learn from the past; instead, we become a variation of it.

In addition to connecting historical trivia to our human, lived experience, Tigue also ties scientific knowledge to the personal. In “Convergent Boundaries,” Tigue notes that subduction occurs “when one tectonic plate sinks / below the other at convergent boundaries, / causing hot magma to rise to the surface.” In the next line, she “slips” and calls subduction a “seduction” of the poem's “you.” Tigue's teasing of a sexual metaphor from rocks is one of the many ways her collection surprises the reader.

The ground does shift in many of Tigue's poems as she places her readers in locations around the world: Thailand, France, Holland Island, Iowa, Michigan, and Chicago. Like the reader, the speaker of the poems seems to be constantly in motion—whether traveling on trains in Europe or flying Frontier Airlines. Yet the ephemeral nature of the structures and people housed in these locations draws Tigue to them. In each of the book's three sections, there is a poem titled “Abandoned Places” that features dying locales—a house crumbling into the sea, towns decaying into earth—and the spirits that haunt them. Often, the speaker has arrived too late; all she catches are glimpses of what was, embodied by the ghosts that float through the title and the rest of the book. Perhaps the concrete knowledge found in System of Ghosts serves to fill the gulf left by these fleeting spaces? Ultimately, the strong but understated emotion in Tigue's poems reminds us that the abandoned places are no longer barren. They are occupied with her presence.