Arthur Sze’s Archipelago

First published in the Portlandia Review of Books #3, Spring 1996, page 10. A new postscript appears at the end, discussing the books ten-verse solo renku.

 

Archipelago, by Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon Press, 1995. 86 pages, 5½ by 8½ inches, perfectbound. ISBN 1-55659-100-4. Nominated for the 1996 PEN Center West Award in Poetry.

 

At a recent poetry conference in Santa Fe, Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze participated in a panel on “Poetry and Culture.” He reiterated what is readily evident in his own poetry, that poets should use their culture as a source of inspiration. Sze masterfully practices this stance in his latest poetry collection, Archipelago. These poems are indeed an archipelago, a chain of poetic islands in a wide expanse of water, each island richly inhabited by ideas and images springing from his culture. What makes this book agreeably challenging is that Sze’s culture is both removed and immediate, both Asian and American (like “a Rinzai monk with a fax machine”).

        Yet more than just cross-culturalism distinguishes these poems. Witness the poet’s fresh seeing (“walk through a garden and see it from your ankles”), commentary (“I am appalled at how obsession with security / yields a pin-pushing, pencil-shaving existence”), or concern for nature:

 

I have seen from the air logged islands,

each with a network of branching gravel roads,

 

and felt a moment of pure anger, aspen gold.

 

In addition, the book hints at formal range, including a prose poem, a ten-verse renga, and about 20 free-form yet unwild, carefully placed poems.

        To me, two main islands in Sze’s archipelago (his interaction with his world) are the concrete and the abstract, the mind and the heart. His poetry is allotropic, existing in two states:

 

Diamond and graphite may be allotropic forms

of carbon, but what are the allotropic forms

 

of ritual and desire?

 

Any book of poetry has a different effect on different readers, of course, yet it seems to me that Sze balances the intuitive and the intellectual to reach his readers on two fronts.

        First, some intuitive moments, which manifest themselves in sharp details and clear images:

 

you rummage in a shed

and find a spindle, notice the oil of

hands has accumulated on the shaft

 

The emotion, whether stark or soft, is carried in the image:

 

a child drinking Coke out of a formula bottle

has all her teeth capped in gold;

 

and:

 

shadows of mosquitoes are moving

along a rice paper screen.

 

        Sze draws the reader into his world (his culture) with imagistic universals. Poems such as “Ice Floe” flow with such images, from “Nails dropped off a roof onto flagstone” to “spiders / moving slowly on tiny threads up and down and across to different stems.” Each image, as it dances past, delivers a fresh emotion. He becomes one with the image, interpenetrating its Zen suchness: “I absorb the outline of a snowy owl on a branch, / the rigor mortis in a hand.” Sze treats his images with trust.

        For all the universality of his images, however, the poet contrasts them with idiolect: opercular, metempsychosic, anthurium, antinomies, nutation, epilimnion, datura, agaric, mycorrhizal. As with unknown regionalisms, I find myself liking such words yet tensing with momentary aversion at their intellectual invasion of the intuitive world of the image, since I have to think about these words, or look them up. I am intrigued by the unknown and its mystery, yet also momentarily snagged and annoyed at what I may not know. Yet I am also glad for the stretch, the opportunity to learn both with the mind and heart. So the poem gains and (temporarily) suffers at such moments, and I move on, edified by intellect as well as by the intuited. The book’s cover photograph shows a walled garden of neatly raked gravel, presumably at Ryoanji, the famous Zen garden in Japan, in part the inspiration for Sze’s poems along with his Southwest/Native American context. The spiritual and meditative energy of Archipelago is not just intuitive or emotional, but indeed intellectual as well, in lines like “to travel far is to return” or “In curved space, is a line a circle?”

        The voice of these poems seems mostly to be Sze himself, and I see him through these poems as a contemplative and thinking complexity. I am curious to see how Sze fares in the 1996 PEN Center West Literary awards, as Archipelago is one of six poetry collections nominated [the award for poetry was won by Carl Rakosi for Poems 1923–1941]. In Archipelago I see the breadth of life, and the breath of life, a poetry that relies on cultural distinction to disintegrate cultural distinction. The poet shows the monk with the fax machine as readily as an archaeologist unearthing a mask and an egret wading in shallow water.

        I cannot wind up this review without applauding Copper Canyon Press as one of the most consistently visible independent poetry publishers in the United States. Aside from the considerable influence of Northwest poet Sam Hamill (who serves as editor and publisher) and the press’s careful selection of leading poets and their largely spiritual work, Copper Canyon books are distinguished by high production standards thanks to masterful typography and design. John D. Berry’s design of Archipelago, like so many other Copper Canyon books, is refined and elegant, spare and simple—less really is more.

        Wherever Arthur Sze ranges with his poetry, he rewards his reader. Sze’s language is lean, tight with connotation. The images, taken alone, are at times as pure and underestimable as haiku. Yet together, taken interdependently, they generate a spry reflection of the whole person, the mind and heart webbed together crating an archipelago of life—not just the poet’s life, but a life with islands scattered over much water, yet a modern life where the world is increasingly shrinking. Arthur Sze’s world is positively informed by his careful reliance on the presentation of his distinctive culture as a means to distinguish the reader’s culture. By turning into the poet’s world, we are better able, as readers, to tune into our own. The serendipity is that despite this poetry’s allotropic variations, perhaps they need not be segregated after all: Arthur Sze’s poems are diamonds and charcoal, yet all carbon at their root.

 

Postscript

My review of Arthur Sze’s book was not written for a haiku audience, so I skip over the book’s linked verse, but this collection is notable to haiku poets for its inclusion of a ten-verse solo renga (or renku). This linked verse is identified as the ninth of nine parts of a longer piece titled “The Redshifting Web,” and I quote it here (from pages 55–56):

 

Pausing in the motion of a stroke,

two right hands

grasping a brush;

 

staring through a skylight

at a lunar eclipse

 

a great blue heron,

wings flapping,

landing on the rail of a float house;

 

near and far:

a continuous warp;

 

a neighbor wants to tear down this fence;

a workman covets it

for a trastero;

 

raccoons on the rooftop

eating apricots;

 

the character xuan

dark, dyed—

pinned to a wall above a computer;

 

lovers making

a room glow;

 

weaving on a vertical loom:

sound of a comb,

baleen;

 

hiding a world in a world:

1054, a supernova.

 

In renku terms, the opening capital letter and concluding period are unnecessary, as are the semicolons after each verse, but otherwise these ten verses exhibit a pleasing range of images and ideas suitable for renku. Individual lines occasionally feel a little too long for either two-line or three-line renku verses, but they make up for it with their variety. Each verse presents a strong image, and we experience remarkable shifts from verse to verse (for example, the shift from baleen to a supernova in the last two verses, or the calligraphy brush of the first verse giving way to seeing a lunar eclipse through a skylight). Linkages (which, together with shifts, are the warp and weft of renku) are less obvious, if present at all, but one example is the shift from the computer (with its glowing monitor) in the seventh verse to the lovers’ “glow” in the eighth verse.

        Nature images predominate, as in the eclipse, the blue heron, raccoons eating apricots, baleen, and the supernova, encompassing both the large and small. These natural images are complemented with more human-focused images, such as the calligraphy brush, skylight, the rail of a float house, the fence and rooftop, a computer, lovers, and a loom. Throughout, these images are interwoven with ideas and concepts (perfectly acceptable for renku), as in the abstraction of a continuous warp (we don’t know what is warped), a workman’s coveting of a fence to make it into a trastero (Spanish for a hand-painted sideboard), the metaphor of lovers making a room “glow,” and the abstraction of the last verse, a world “hiding a world” in its reference to the July 4, 1054 supernova that created the Crab Nebula.

        Not renkulike are the linkages that connect with verses other than the one immediately preceding. Calligraphy is mentioned in the first verse, and the Chinese character for xuan appears in the seventh verse. Because it’s easy to imagine this character being done in calligraphy, this feels like a throwback link, generally frowned upon in renku. Likewise, the supernova image of the last verse is a throwback to the lunar eclipse of the second verse. Others with more experience in the necessities of seasonal progression in renku might have additional comments, as the sequence has little seasonal indication.

        In sum, though, these ten verses demonstrate a range of subjects that may not often have been addressed by contemporary English-language renku. They suggest to me that renku in English could be more daring in their subject matter, more challenging in their word choices.

 

—12 December 2010