On Arthur Sze: A Review Essay

by Chard deNiord

Arthur Sze’s massive 521-page book of poems, The Glass Constellation, collects poems from nine of his previous books and concludes with a selection of new poems titled The White Orchard. While the book is imposing in its length and heft, the selection of poems from each of  his ten books—The Willow Wind (1972), Two Ravens (1976), Dazzled (1982), River River (1987), Archipelago (1995), The Redshifting Web (1998), Quipu (2005), The Ginko Light (2009), Compass Rose (2014), Sight Lines (2019; winner of the National Book Award for Poetry), and The White Orchard (2021)—blend so seamlessly into each other in such lyrically illuminative ways that the book’s considerable volume seems much smaller than it actually is as soon as one begins reading it.

Sze writes gracefully about both the cosmos and the natural world, mining vivid imagery that performs exactly what Ezra Pound wrote an image should embody, namely, “an emotional and intellectual complex in an instance of time.” One poem segues into the next, moving from book to book with leaping, lyrical reportage that erases the speaker’s ego but not his presence. Each of his poems is a proverbial drop containing the whole of the ocean of his poetry.

A second-generation Chinese American who grew up in Queens, New York, Sze has long made his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has strong ties with the Native American community. In this ambitious and impressive collection of his work since 1972, Sze has amassed a body of wise, sentient poems that reflect this blend of place and culture with both engaging simplicity and runic profundity. Yet, his readers need to know very little if anything about both Zen and/or Taoism to appreciate his musings that read like cosmic hymns. Like Walt Whitman, W. S. Merwin, Allen Ginsberg, Ann Waldman, and Jane Hirshfield, to mention only a few American poets with an Eastern sensibility, Sze conjures poems that betray strange but inherent relations between all things, as in this seventh section of “The String Diamond”:

A hummingbird alights on a lilac branch
and stills the mind. A million monarchs
may die in a frost? I follow the wave
of blooming in the yard: from iris to
wild rose to dianthus to poppy to lobelia
to hollyhock. You may find a wave in
a black-headed grosbeak singing from a cottonwood
or in listening to a cricket at dusk.
I inhale the smell of your hair and see
the cloud of ink a cuttlefish releases in water.

The leap Sze makes from “smelling” his beloved’s hair to “seeing” the “cloud of ink a cuttlefish releases in water” exemplifies the kind of serendipitous sensual connections he makes in all his poems, moving from one ecstatic experience to another via the sentient transport of his vivid imagery. But the poems are much more than lyricized experience, for Sze, in his transpersonal awareness, makes electric connections between his speaker, himself, and “the other,” whether that other be a simple object or creature, as in “First Snow” from his book Sight Lines:

Yesterday, you constructed an aqueduct of dreams
                          and stood at Gibraltar,
                                                          but you possess nothing.

Snow melts into a pool of clear water;
             and, in this stillness,

                          starlight behind daylight wherever you gaze.

or Sze himself inviting his reader as a fellow pilgrim into his front seat in “Unpacking a Globe”:

I nod and, staring at the Kenai, hear
ice breaking up along an inlet;

yesterday a coyote trotted across
my headlights and turned his head

but didn’t break stride; that’s how
I want to live on this planet:

alive to a rabbit at a glass door—
and flower where there is no flower.

In addition to his poems, haiku-like single lines appear intermittently throughout, acting as verbal shards that stick in his reader’s mind:

Black kites with outstretch wings circle overhead—

                                    *

—During the cultural revolution, a boy saw his mother shot by a firing squad—

                                    *

—No one could anticipate the distance from Monticello—

Sze’s title, The Glass Constellation, works as a trope for cosmic awareness, as in his love poem “String Diamond,” which ends with these two and half lines: “I find it / with my hand along the curve of your waist, / sensing in slow seconds the tilting of the Milky Way,” or in the last poem of the book, “Transpirations,” which ends with this line: “gazing into a lake on a salt flat and drinking, in reflection, the Milky Way—.” Sze’s humility inspires koans that remain unanswerable in the face of cosmic inscrutability. “Where does matter end and space begin?” he asks at the end of section five of “Before Completion.” Unknowable mystery guides Sze repeatedly to oxymoronic conceits of sagacious ignorance that remind his reader of the archetypal wisdom that lies at the stone feet of every enduring religion. And yet, surprising sense resounds in myriad, leaping ironies in Sze’s poems, which concatenate with Zen fluidity. Again, however one doesn’t need to know much or anything about the teachings of Zen or Buddhism to appreciate Sze’s deep imagery, which conveys a universal human apprehension traversing the landscape of literal meaning to horizons of abstract interior sense. In opening The Glass Constellation to any page, as I’m doing now, one comes across lines like these in “Inflorescence” that capture the enticing weirdness of an engaged, leaping mind that’s both perspicacious and imaginative:

Go sway on a suspension bridge over a gorge;
you do not ponder the beauty of an azure
lotus-shaped wine-warming bowl with five
spurs the size of sesame seeds at the base,
but, instead, inhale the cool mist sliding
over pines, making the white boulders below
disappear and reappear. This is how you
become absent to pancakes smoking on a griddle—
pricked once in thought, you are pinned,
singed back to the watery splendor of the hour:
wisteria leaves thin to transparency on the porch;
a girl relaxes on horseback in the field
while sunlight stipples her neck. You smile,
catch the aroma of pumpkin seeds in the oven,
exult in the airy, spun filaments of clouds.
Before there was above and below, who was there
to query? One marks a bloody trail in water
from a harpooned narwhal, dreams of clustered
igloos lit by seal oil. You flicker, nod:
what one has is steeped in oil, wicked into flame.

For readers who may not know the ancient precepts of both Zen Buddhism and Taoism, it’s important to understand, in light of Sze’s Taoist sensibility and Eastern influence in general, that traditional Chinese Ch’an/Japanese Zen Buddhism is derived almost entirely from Lao Tsu’s Taoist philosophy. The Tao scholar and translator David Hinton captures the poetic calculus of Taoist expression that’s so prevalent throughout Sze’s poems in this succinct precis from his China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen:

Sage wisdom in ancient China meant understanding the deep nature of consciousness and Cosmos, how they are woven together into a single fabric, and how to inhabit that weave as an organic part of Tao’s generative cosmological/ontological process [ … ] this habitation is the intent of meditation practice with its empty mirror-mind that erases the distinction between inner and outer. Its other primary form in Ch’an [Zen] was wu-wei [ … ] which means “not acting,” in the sense of acting without the identity-center self, or acting with an empty and therefore wild mind.

Hinton’s description of Taoism as a “generative cosmological/ontological process” describes Sze’s praxis precisely as a courageous openness to the dictates of a “wild mind.” Sze’s steady outpouring of new work since 1972 testifies to the infinite inspiration of this seminal muse. Indeed, he has made new the ancient wisdom of Taoism’s self-renewing binary: “the Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao.” The cosmic cynosure that is implicit in Sze’s title, The Glass Constellation, connotes radiance, reflection, and exquisite craftsmanship. It’s an apt metaphor for his transcendent poetry.

Published on August 4, 2022

2022-08-04T14:00:28-04:00