“I am Happiest, Here, Now!”: Arthur Sze’s Poetry of Witness: The Ginkgo Light
The Ginkgo Light by Arthur Sze. 96 pages. Copper Canyon Press, 2009. $15.00.
Being the natural child of Sylvia Plath and William Blake (with an incurable weakness for on-page dramatics), I was not a natural reader for the work of Arthur Sze, as I first encountered it in the mid 1990s. I was attracted to arias; there seemed to be no spot-lit singer in Sze’s poems, certainly not the operatic kind, singing out of passion. The ‘I’ of an Arthur Sze poem was most often an eye: poems I read felt nearly documentary in nature, both in form and feeling, as in this section from “Oolong,” one of the long sequences in his celebrated 1995 collection, Archipelago:
True or false:
termites release methane and add to the greenhouse effect;
the skin of a blowfish is lethal;
crosses along roads in Mexico mark vehicular deaths;
the earth is flat;
oysters at full moon contain hepatitis;
no one has ever seen a neutrino;
the fins of a blowfish are always edible;
oolong means black dragon, but oo means crow and long means dragon;
he loved the curves of her body;
the sun revolves around the earth;
caffeine stimulates the central nervous system;
light is a wave;
the mind is composed of brightest bright and darkest dark;
context is crucial;
pfennigs, xu, qindarka, centimes, stotinki, qursh are coins;
the raw liver of a tiger blowfish caught at winter solstice is a delicacy;
I have a knife inscribed with the names of forty-eight fish.
Even in passages that eschewed the list form, a sense of taking inventory came through:
Red poppies are blooming along a wall;
I look at green and underlying blue paint
peeling off a bench: you rummage in a shed
and find a spindle, notice the oil of
hands has accumulated on the shaft.
In the rippling shadows, the shimmer of water.
Mostly Sze’s work stimulated thinking: I was interested in the “true or false” of “Oolong,” how it asked me to consider knowledge and its dependence on context, how every “true” and “false” is contingent. But I was a writer, a reader, who was most moved by poetry that punched. I didn’t know how to feel the bounty of record Sze offered, the accounting self.
Years later, a month after the September 11th attacks, I attended a reading Sze gave in Santa Fe, New Mexico (our mutual hometown). It included these lines from “Earthshine,” a long poem which would later appear in his 2005 collection, Quipu:
say crumpled white papers ripple then burst into yellow twists of flame;
say parallel lines touch in the infinite;
say stoplight screech go green laugh;
say screech, rip, slam, thud, body scrapes, bleeds to bone;
say bobcat stripped of skin;
say a black cricket chirps in a corner of the room;
say ox shoulder hangs off hook;
say trimming roses, she slashed her left wrist;
say shit-smear hair-sway leaf-gold ooze;
say breaking a wineglass in a white napkin recovers a sliver of original light;
say egg-white eyeball splash;
say bend to earth, find a single stalk budding gold.
After a month of collective dread, televised grief and jingoistic speeches, nightmares of anthrax attacks, horror-show parodies of ticker-tape parades-for the first time, Arthur’s lists were all I wanted to hear. Most people were in death-shock, stunned by threat; as I listened to Arthur read “Earthshine” I realized the crucial gift his poems offered: immersion, in the “shit-smear hair-sway leaf-gold ooze” of endlessly proliferating life. It was a gift presented without heat, without manipulation of the heart, in keeping with the essential nature of its record: the isness of the is. This is a motto of dispassion that in the face of destruction becomes heartbreaking, even heroic. Sze stood at the lectern in the public library and invoked particulars against the debris.
Arthur Sze’s newest book is The Ginkgo Light (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), and to me it’s his most moving and formally accomplished. At its center stands the ginkgo tree, ginkgo biloba; a tree considered a living fossil. “Once thought extinct,” Sze tells us, it was “discovered in Himalayan monasteries / and propagated back into the world” (“Chrysalis”). Today its green-to-golden fan-shaped leaves plaster the sidewalks of New York City after rain.
About the ginkgo Sze writes:
Sometimes one fingers annihilation
before breaking into bliss.
(“The Ginkgo Light”)
a temple in Hiroshima 1130 meters
from the hypocenter disintegrates, while its ginkgo
buds after the blast.
(“The Ginkgo Light”)
before the agapanthus blooms,
before the body scorches, razes
consciousness, you have time
to puzzle, sway, lurch, binge,
skip, doodle, whine, incandesce.
Along with being a hardy survivor, the ginkgo is distinctive for the venation pattern in its leaves: two veins enter the leaf at the stalk; each vein then forks in two. And so it goes with each successive set of arms: ever-forking, never linking or circling back: this is called dichotomous venation and is the rarest venation pattern in nature. Sze thinks about it this way:
a chart can depict how height and weight
unfold along time, no chart can depict
how imagination unfolds, endlessly branching.
Axis and extension. The fork in the road that offers holocaust and incandescence.
As much as a poet of image, Sze is a poet of syntax. Etymology takes me to the Greek, syntaxis: to arrange. In grammar, syntax means “the arrangement of words by which their connection and relation in a sentence are shown” (OED). I could replace “their” with “our” and get at the heart of The Ginkgo Light.
The most pervasive hinge in the book is the conjunction: before, but, though, when, while, and, mostly, as, particularly in the way it signals simultaneity:
As bits of consciousness constellate,
I rouse to a 3 a.m.
As a musician lifts
a small xun to his mouth and blows, I see kiwis
hanging from branches above a moon doorway.
(“Pig’s Heaven Inn”)
As sunlight slants over the Sangre de Cristos,
he notices Tesuque Pueblo police have pulled
a pick-up off the highway.
As cider collects
in plastic jugs while a few yellow jackets sip,
(“The Double Helix”)
Everything is connected because everything is happening together in time: as is the nexus, the coordinating point of convergence. I don’t think I have ever encountered a book whose art and impact relied so completely on the conjunction, a part of speech barely marked in the flashy collision of words that makes poetry. Nearly every poem in The Ginkgo Light is noticeably stitched by conjunctions, overt or implied; in frequency they are surpassed only by the semicolon as a hinge for the paired evocations-dichotomous veining-comprising many of the book’s poetic lines:
Near Bikini Island, the atom bomb mushroomed
into a fireball that obsidianed the azure sky,
splayed palm leaves, iridescent black, in wind;
that fireball moment always lurks behind
the retired pilot’s eyes, even when he jokes,
pours vodka, displays his goggles, medal,
leather jacket hanging from a peg. A woman
hums as she works with willow, X-acto knife,
magnifying lens to restore a Jicarilla Apache
basket; she has no glimmer a zig-zag line
is beginning to unravel, does not know within
a decade she will unload a slug into her mouth.
(“The Ginkgo Light”)
Like the conjunction, the semicolon in grammar has a linking function. Here it acts as a half-opened gate, through which the past flows into the present (lines 1—7), the present into the future (lines 7—12). It is also the point in that flow that marks a turn in circumstances for its subject: the bomber destroyed/now he thrives; the artist restores/she will self-destruct. Because part of its linking function is to connect items in a list, the semicolon does something ingenious here—it turns these opposites into apposites: restoration and obliteration are not posed against each other but are positioned side by side, as if to say, these are but waves in the overall flow of time. The details of the section-the peg for the jacket of the retired pilot, his haunted eyes; the X-acto knife, the humming weaver and the slug-are stark and searing. Sze sacrifices no depth of feeling in emphasizing what I can only call an equalizing view of human experience.
In The Ginkgo Light, poems display no hierarchies, no valuations of better than/worse than. Points of convergence shift: the center of the timeline in lines 1—7 above is the pilot; it is also the fireball; it is also the semicolon; it all depends from what vantage you look. Sze is not interested in one point or one set of convergent lines alone; he is interested in the web, net of continuous relation.*
This sense of web-of point and converging lines-is expressed beautifully in the short poem “Crisscross.” Usually deeply embedded in the sentences of which they are part, the poem’s five central declaratives-I write, I watch, I stay, I recall, I catch-act as knots for the convergence of long descriptive threads, documentaries of experience, that are a hallmark of Sze’s writing:
Meandering across a field with wild asparagus,
I write with my body the characters for grass,
water, transformation, ache to be one with spring.
Biting into watermelon, spitting black seeds
onto a plate, I watch the eyes of an Armenian
accordion player, and before dropping a few
euros into his brown cap, smell sweat and fear.
I stay wary of the red horse, Relampago, latch
the gate behind me; a thorned Russian olive
branch arcs across the path below my forehead,
and, approaching the Pojoaque River, I recall
the sign, Beware Pickpockets, find backhoe tracks,
water diverted into a ditch. Crisscrossing
the stream, I catch a lightning flash, the white-
capped Truchas peaks, behind, to the east, and in
the interval between lightning and thunder,
as snow accumulates on black branches,
the chasm between what I envision and what I do.
Here the conjunction is implied: “[while] meandering . . . I write”; “[while] biting into watermelon . . . I watch.” Time as convergence point recedes from focus; between the field of wild asparagus and the characters for “grass, water, transformation” stands the active and self-reflective ‘I,’ phenomena’s coordinating witness.
*Tracking continuous relation reaches formal apotheosis in “Power Line,” which is one long sentence divided into six stanzas, eighteen lines. It begins with “as” and drives through a series of grammatical sluices: eleven commas, five semicolons, and two dashes; as well as summer vegetables, screech owls, pecan shells, brain tumors, bowling balls, children playing tag, and dumpling-making, among other phenomenological flora and fauna.
When Carolyn Forché coined the term “poetry of witness” in her landmark 1993 anthology Against Forgetting, she had specific qualities in mind: the work of poets who “endured . . . exile, state censorship, political prosecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination.” About such work she wrote, “[It] might be our only evidence that an event has occurred . . . poem as evidence.”
Twenty-seven years later the importance of “poem as evidence” comes ever more clear to me, not just in terms of the political and societal devastation impressing the poems in Forché’s anthology, but in terms of the ecological and cultural devastation we are finally confronting today. It is under these conditions that I view The Ginkgo Light, and so much of Sze’s poetry over the last twenty years, as working “against forgetting.”
In order not to forget you have to be willing to see; Sze is a poet of what I would call Deep Noticing, a strong lineage in American poetry. Its most obvious and influential practitioner is William Carlos Williams; its iconic poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Dispassionate presentation of “the thing itself,” “glazed with rain/water” (or any particular) is its prevailing attribute. While the scope of Sze’s work is wider and his attention more self-reflexive and analytical than Williams’s, these qualities are at the core of his poetic expression. Especially tonally, one might not categorize Sze’s work as “political” since it eschews the heat that usually accompanies such work. Content-wise, one might not deem the poems “political” because they eschew partisanship: as we have seen, Sze’s attention is capacious; it’s attracted to paradox; it takes facing opponents and seats them side by side.
But in an age of hourly diminishment-of habitat, of myriad flora and fauna, of indigenous land and culture, our ozone layer, our polar caps, our immune systems-to deeply notice and record becomes political indeed. To notice is to become aware; in becoming aware, we have an opportunity to diagnose, to fix, to salvage. This is especially crucial for a mediated, medicated, multitasking culture such as our own; who among us-the screen-fixed, the ear-budded, the Xanaxed-are present enough to stand witness to the diminishing actual world?
Blinking red light on the machine: he presses
the button, and a voice staggers, “I’m back,”
“I don’t know where I am.” “I drive but can’t
recollect how I get to where I am,” —whiteout
when a narwhal sprays out its blowhole and water
crystallizes in air—”Thirty-three days,”
he presses replay: the voice spirals, “I lost
four members of my family in a whaling accident”;
he writes down numbers, 424-0590, dials,
“My cousin killed himself after his girlfriend
killed herself,” richochets in his ears; though
the name is blurred, he guesses at bowhead
ribs in a backyard, canisters of radioactive
waste stored inland on Saint Lawrence Island;
twenty below: Yupik children play string games;
when he broke the seal on a jar of smoked
king salmon, he recalled his skin and clothes
reeked of smoke from the float house woodstove.
So much is witnessed here: personal anguish, environmental peril, natural phenomena, tribal particulars. Switch the word pairings around (personal peril, tribal anguish) and you’d still describe the essential nature of this section from “Spectral Line,” the long poem at the center of The Ginkgo Light. For twenty years Sze taught native college students at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) and he is a vivid and sensitive recorder of contemporary native life. It’s a record based on quotidian engagement (classroom, office, meeting, potluck, ceremony), grounded and nuanced enough to bring “Indian” out of the archetypal and into the realm of the simply and slyly human:
Incoming freshmen have been taken hostage,
the letter to the president began; we demand
computers and art supplies; limo service
to the Gathering of Nations; the sum total
of Pell Funds be released at once. Benildus Hall
is our headquarters. When the SWAT team
surrounded the building, someone pointed
to the small print: Happy April First.
“Spectral Line” is a nine-part poem that too has a hinge: section five, a partial list of indigenous tribes (here excerpted):
Standing Rock Lakota,
San Ildefonso Pueblo,
Swampy Cree. . . .
Linguistically vibrant, the section strikes me on multiple levels. Visually, I couldn’t escape seeing it as the long central body of a butterfly, the four “fatter” sections on either side of it a set of wings. Structurally, the section acts as the converging point for the poem: each tribe is presented as unmodified fact, into and out of which the poem’s evocations and meditations flow. Thirdly, the list seems a significant act of recording—of vanishing yet rare languages, dwindling yet enduring peoples—so that we won’t, and Sze won’t (he retired from the IAIA in 2006), forget.
It took calamity and threat to wake me up to the necessity and power of the art of Arthur Sze. His inventorying impulse fills an important gap in the range of our common litanies, between the recitation of names to honor the dead and the proliferating begats of creation stories: it provides a testimony of living, of being in time.
Listing is, of course, linked to cataloguing and accounting; but the dictionary also tells us that “to account” is to explain, consider, to answer for the fate of something. “We cannot act as if/we were asleep” Sze writes in “Spectral Line.” Throughout The Ginkgo Light, as in all his work, Sze answers diminishment with the living catalogue, phenomena in full flower, exclaiming, “I am happiest, here, now!” I always read that moment in the title poem as a defiant cry, an exultation against extinguishing forces. If only a few books were to survive civilization’s collapse, were to stand as “poems of evidence” that life once flourished, I would hope Arthur Sze’s to be among them.
Dana Levin‘s first book, In the Surgical Theatre, was published by American Poetry Review (Copper Canyon Press) in 1999, and Copper Canyon brought out her second book, Wedding Day, in 2005. Her work has appeared in many anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers, The Poet’s Child, This Art, and in magazines such as The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Kenyon Review. She has won the Rona Jaffe Writers Award, the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her newest book, Sky Burial, will be out from Copper Canyon in spring 2011. She is a contributing editor of AGNI. (4/2010)