System of Ghosts

System of Ghosts

by Lindsay Tigue


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609384012
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 04/01/2016
Series: Iowa Poetry Prize Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 84
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Lindsay Tigue grew up in Michigan. Her poems and stories have appeared in Prairie SchoonerBlackbirdIndiana Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among other literary journals. She lives in Athens, Georgia, where she is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Georgia. 

Read an Excerpt

System of Ghosts


By Lindsay Tigue

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2016 Lindsay Tigue
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-401-2



    There were uncounted millions of the beasts — hundreds     of millions, we forced ourselves to believe.

    — Frank H. Mayer, The Buffalo Harvest

    I can't force myself to believe in any old
      almanac, that the best days for fishing
      will come mid-March, that fog in January
      brings a wet spring.

    Most of my knowledge gets turned, or upset. Even chickens
      aren't completely flightless — they can make it
      over a fence, into the low branches
    of trees. In China, a man built his own dialysis machine, kept
      himself alive for thirteen years.

    Wolverines will rescue people from snowbanks, dragging them
      by their shirtsleeves to safety.

    At the Maeklong Railway Market in Thailand, tourists marvel
      eight times a day
      at produce stalls set right on the tracks,
    whole shops removed as a train barges through.

    Like clockwork, the market reassembles. I always question
      the most rigid convictions. I can't trust a person
      who plays the lottery, believes in planning

    for luck. I think someone evil once said, a single death
      is a tragedy, a million a statistic.
I don't buy into
    the claptrap of despots. I want to say the word miracle somehow
      without cringing, believe

    types of goodness exist. Oh. It's too easy
    to trust —
      the future arrives; the honeymoon happens.
      The baby is born with ten fingers, ten toes.


    Call it knowledge —
    wanting to see

    how the world is made.
    My new roommate goes to the store,

    buys crystals, practices archery
    in the backyard. The arrows fly

    toward our house, a still-new
    place. Sometimes I forget

    how to recycle batteries,
    to not undress

    in front of open windows at night. One
    summer, when I worked at a park,

    visitors brought ashes. They carried
    urns, wanting to leave people

    in the mountains. One man walked
    along the road, tipped out

    his canister right on the guardrail.
    Ashes sat there for days, so bone-white

    in the rain. I wouldn't clear them away.
    I can be energy and wait.

    Is this a particular missing? I am
    no longer by the mountains. No

    longer by plains. The other day I
    dreamed of the person I might

    miss most. He was dressed like
    a cell-phone salesman. He put his nose

    to my cheek. The other day, I asked
    my phone for directions to a place.

    I didn't go. All day, a voice called out: Turn left.


    At our new house, empty scrap
    framed weedy earth, but my mother said:
    a perfect sandbox.

    The sand came from a store, but I still hoped
    to find a shell, the smell of sea,
    some smooth-edged bottle glass sifted
    from dunes.

    I'd drag lines in the mineral grain
    with my plastic rake. I'd dream
    summer on Hampton Beach, New Hampshire's
    thin eyelash of coast.

    I'd remember burying my limbs,
    how I splashed steps into waves. How I
    called my imaginary plans:
    I'll chase the water out until it's gone.

    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?


    When the Union Pacific
    and the Central Pacific
    formed one railroad, more
    than 8,000 towns
    used local time.

    Before the railroad,
    people based time
    on the natural
    movement of the sun.

    Now, my sister lives
    two hours behind me.
    My brother one hour

    In the 1870s, railroads
    created bureaus, sent agents
    east, to Europe, attracting
    settlers to this land.

    Hold your eyelids
    wide open with your fingers. Go
    outdoors as much as possible.
    Natural light will reset
    your body's clock. Retire to sleep
    at the local bedtime.


    Everything — houses, churches, bridges, walls — is the
    same sandy gray so that the city seems like a single
    construction of inconceivable complexity.

    — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

    Do you remember the front door
    painted blue? How it even rained,
    but we stayed in the Hotel Perfect.
    At the tower, they wouldn't let us go up
    to the top, only the near-top. And you
    patted the beams, joked about structural
    integrity. I've never seen a place like this,
    you said. Do you still remember
    my terrible French? Coming back
    from Versailles, we couldn't wait to peel
    those rain-soaked clothes. I can't be sure —
    all my you-memories become one
    sprawling city. Was it on that trip
    you mimicked the poses of statues
    we saw in the park? On a different trip,
    (that night it snowed), we stopped
    at an Indiana motel, drank a bottle
    of wine naked, dripping on sheets.
    I stayed there again once, alone.
    Out the window, cars rumbled away.
    It rained and the power went out.
    The building noises silenced
    with drawn-out whirs like breaths.


    All night, in the train car to Valencia, the young couple speaks
    Italian, propped on elbows in their bunks. Their whispered

    joy hovers like a tent. They are a skylight above me. I catch words,
    snatches of sense. I am teenaged and thrilled

    by history. Now, the couple peels oranges — one, then another,
    another. They citrus-fill the compartment with noise

    and snack. They hand slices near the ceiling; they drop rinds
    like shed chrysalis, like discarded drafts, like we may

    all become new before long. I may never think beyond
    oranges again — their smell sharpens the air. Perhaps

    we are like explorers bringing fruit to Iberia, we travelers,
    like royalty. We are Europe in the 17th century. Citriculture

    is for kings. Or, we speak Middle English, rename this color
    after crop. There is no longer yellow-red. Let us navigate,

    crating seedlings across an ocean from Spain. In Bahia, we'll celebrate
    the birth of navel oranges. It looks like umbigo, we'll say. The button

    of my belly. Who ate the first orange? The new hybrid of mandarin
    and pummelo, in that corner confluence of India, China, Burma,

    whatever land was there then. This taste for new food — maybe
    I carry memories in my tongue. I am young, too, I could tell them

    and can I be like you? I will speak citrus. I will claw at the peels.
    The train roars across track and I want orange dust near this skin.


    A motor vehicle carries us to our graves.

    — Clay McShane, The Automobile: A Chronology of Its
    Antecedents, Development, and Impact

    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. I don't like to pilot,
    steer. And I don't want to drive
    you home. Did you know

    the word cab comes from
    cabriolet? My grandmother
    made me sit in the backseat.

    Precious cargo, she called me,
    rolling slowly over dirt roads.
    Each pothole borne in my bones.

    In 1817, streets were still
    meeting places. I want to remember
    the first streetlights, the ideas for green

    and red borrowed from passing ships.
    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.


    The house on sinking Holland Island —
    an old Victorian, shingles-crumbling,

    the isle's last structure falling into
    the Chesapeake Bay.

    Before it collapsed in 2010,
    one couple rowed out there.

    I click through their photos —
    the house's interior full of dusty

    bottles, broken furniture. Their shots
    of gulls in flight. A rusty tub. Their GPS

    to guide them. They walked through
    the island's old cemetery, from its days

    as village, where watermen lived
    and dredged oysters in the bay.

    The land has been sinking
    for thousands of years. The water

    rising ever more quickly. In
    2003, hurricane waves rushed

    through the kitchen. This place
    of silt and clay knows how

    to disappear. In 1995, one man
    bought the island and wanted

    to save it himself. The experts said
    he never had a chance. He tried

    building breakwaters out of wood.
    He put down hundreds of sandbags,

    lined large rocks against the shoreline.
    Before it fell, that house appeared

    to sit directly on the waves. The man
    gave up the island after he turned

    eighty, underwent chemotherapy.
    The couple's photos online show

    his favorite grown-over headstone,
    a girl's grave that reads: Forget me not

    is all I ask.


    The Blackfoot of the Plains had over
    a hundred words for the colors
    of horses, their many varied,
    running shades. If only we could all
    be as reliable as the horses we rode in on.
    I want many words for you. I want
    something as far as I can throw it. No,
    farther. You say, I throw like a girl. I do
    everything that way. I ask, is the flue
    open and you look up the chimney. I ask,
    can you see the sky? Can we have
Before you walk away, try to find it.
    Fix the dripping radiator. Don't travel
    too far — walk, or ride out on some
    journey alone. Our brains too big
    for our bodies, too big for the cage
    of our skeleton. Even our bipedal
    nature changed everything. The bones
    in our feet rearranged. This whole house
    smells of body. Damp shower and sheet.
    I show you my socks that are starting to thin
    and you say, here come the toes. I point to our
    curtains falling from window. You won't
    fix it all before you go.

    — at the Georgia Museum of Art

    The teenagers stare at the canvas.
    At the art museum, I watch them
    squirm with body-newness, struggle
    with attention. The curator shows
    a Howard Thomas painting. Providence
    Canyon in color. Orange. Red. Yellow.
    Anything, but everything warm. Thomas
    used earth pigments. Grinding up soil,
    mixing for color. Quaker-born, from Ohio,
    during his first trip to the South, he
    gathered red clay outside Asheville.

    In the museum, in a Lucite case,
    I see the baby food jars of his color
    collection. Labeled — detailed records,
    natural materials. The jar lids instruct,
    Twist. When I first arrived in the South,
    I stayed in the very same mountains.
    I spent the summer in a camper
    with a man who understood newness,
    who once buried his documents, his identity
    in the ground, changed his name. Spent
    time in jail for it, hidden, staring I suppose
    at some wall blankness. He told me, I think
    I might love you.
I didn't say anything
    back. At the museum, the curator explains

    Thomas's process. She says it was like dancing.
    That he placed the canvas on the floor. He
    played music in the background. Bach,
    Vivaldi, Haydn. She closes her eyes to what
    she might hear. She begins to hop about
    the gallery, she dabs invisible paint

    across the floor. The teenagers
    stare. One boy asks, What does it mean?
    After they leave, I approach
    the jars. I imagine someone asks, have you
    been there?

    The other day, a new friend walked
    along the river, uncovered an old homestead.
    She found clouded milk
    glass, dusty vessels, broken cans.

    A few hours south, the ground.
    I've learned it gapes open. I didn't know
    there were canyons. Here. And somewhere:
    caves. Somehow: a way to read
    colors. The rows of jars that
    have to mean something.


Excerpted from System of Ghosts by Lindsay Tigue. Copyright © 2016 Lindsay Tigue. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Solitary, Imaginary,
How to Adjust to Time Zones,
City of Light,
The Trajectory of Oranges,
Abandoned Places,
Little Grand Canyon in Yellow,
We are a System of Ghosts,
Convergent Boundaries,
How to Care for Buffalo Horns,
History of Rooms,
Abandoned Places,
Michigan Central Station Has Been Closed Since 1988,
For the Ghost You Might Become,
To Disappear in Michigan,
My Dad's Brother Called Every Year for Five Years Then Disappeared,
Strange Ducks,
New Year,
Canopic Jars,
Abandoned Places,
Frontier Airlines,
The Center of the Earth is a Little Off Kilter,
How to Measure the Weight of Snow,
The Body Travels,
Linear Foreign Bodies,
White-Nose Syndrome,
Progress Without End,
Abandoned Places,
Interview Practice,
Minor Planets,
Alms for the Birds,
Needs Assessment,

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