Saturday, January 14, 2006

Arthur Sze

Thinking about Arthur Sze's book The Redshifting Web, which I like very much. It has a quiet hold on me, not easy to articulate, not simple. Quiet poetry, not to be confused with "empty reverence" which there seems to be a lot of these days. Sze's poetic is one of "appreciation" but his gaze isn't simple. The poem "Miracles" begins
His lens misses her,
the leaves cast double reflections
on the glass. The one
is his shadow; as he leans up
he discovers a new perspective...
Or from "Written The Day I Was To Begin A Residency at The State Penitentiary"
Inmates put an acetylene torch to another inmate's face,
seared out his eyes.
and later:
I tell myself to be open to all experience,
to take what is ugly and find something nourishing in it...
and finally:
I figure their chances, without people caring,
are 'an ice cube's chance in hell.'
which aligns the narrator in a way with the reader, but doesn't dislocate the meaning, nor offer a kind of congratulatory "aha" moment.

The poem sequence "The Leaves Of A Dream Are The Leaves Of An Onion", is wonderful. The second poem begins with the line "A Galapagos turtle has nothing to do/with the world of the neutrino" and ends with a line about a man throwing a molotov cocktail having everything to do with a sunflower bending towrad the light. A sense of hopeful connection is everywhere in Sze's work. But by the time we get to "Archipelago," the newer work dated 1995, there are enormous gaps in the text, like delicious springs of water:
True or false:

termites release methane and add to the greenhouse effect;

the skin of a blowfish is lethal;
and in another section,
a flayed elephant skin;

she stir-fries tea leaves in a wok.
what we are witness to here is the pulling, scraping, seeing, movement of self on earth, the attempt to connect and acceptance of disconnect, not embracing, noticing. As Tony Barnstone points out in Rain Taxi, Archipelago is Sze's "breakthrough book", the moment where his work reaches its "developmental arc." And as a translator of Chinese poetry, and a Chinese American, Sze is steeped in meditative poetry, so his minimalist project makes sense.
But I go by my gut reaction, and this is mine: as the collection proceeds I find myself feeling more and more hopeful, more and more light in my step as the poems become more serious in a way and focused. I suspect this has something to do with the gaps. Room to elbow in and peer into the eye of a dragonfly myself, perhaps?

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