Finished this book last night. My first encounter with Arthur Sze. But a name I’ve come across often. Pulitzer finalist. National Book Award for this collection, Sight Lines. Typically I don’t pay attention to that kind of thing. But when I discover a poet so late in their own career (ten books of poetry in his back pocket), and someone obviously well-recognized, I sort of wonder what rock I’ve been hiding under. Then I think, Oh yeah, every rock big enough to hide under.
Sze is a second generation Chinese American poet. I wanted to look this up too because something about Sight Lines felt very Chinese. It’s hard to explain. I listened to a lecture on Chinese poetry by Grant Voth not too long ago, and I remember him saying that Chinese poetry accesses the internal (emotion) by way of external (observation). Hence: Sight Lines? Voth says:
“In a poem by Li Po, “heavens-clear-one goose-far” in the first line parallels “lake-vast-lone-sail-slow” in the second to suggest “The sky is clear, a single goose afar; / The lake, vast—a lone sail moves slowly.” The point of the poem is in the parallels: each line describes a white speck on a vast body of blue, in which the distant bird seems to move as slowly as the nearer sail on the water. If the reader tries to reconstruct the mental pressure that generated the poem, he or she can recreate the poet watching a sail carrying a traveler away, with the feeling of sadness that such a moment always implies.
A first-person perspective is almost always assumed by a Chinese poem, but the reader is required to do a certain amount of work to recreate the moment that inspired it. Typically, the Chinese poet keeps the reader focused on what he or she is seeing, which allows for a certain amount of interpretive freedom.”
And you have to image the pictograms that the lines themselves are made of. So, historically, you’d read the poem by creating for yourself a kind of pictorial narrative, a scene, out of the words provided. And from that scene, you’d get an emotional impression. That feeling is the point of the poem, even though the words themselves, laid out as a series of things (objects, animals, etc.) might not translate directly to that feeling.
See what I mean? Hard to explain. But I’m not sure how else to describe Sze’s poetry. Here, for instance, is the first section of a poem called “Python Skin”:
Many of the poems start in the material world, in the material moment. They wind their way through various other moments, histories, observations, people. Sometimes these windings are connected, but mostly they’re disconnected. Finally, the poems end where they began, which is to say, with another moment, another observation, no more important (usually) than any others preceding it.
These moments weave themselves across poems. I mean lines repeat, not just within poems but from poem to poem. In fact, the title poem is actually composed (entirely, I think?) of other lines in the book. Lisa Higgs, in her review of the book, brings us back to the final statement of “Sight Lines” as a way of reading continuity into the book by way of repetition: “though parallel lines touch in the infinite, the infinite is here—.” A sentiment we all know from William Blake’s infinitely quoted “eternity in a grain of sand.”
But I wonder about the method behind that message in Sze’s book. I definitely see how it works in a short piece, like the Li Po poem that Voth describes. There, the emotion is heightened because of the poem’s brevity—because of how selective and condensed its observation is. A small curation of images can be experienced, inwardly, in endless ways throughout a person’s life. But I’m having trouble recalling a single poem in Sight Lines. Instead, I have an impression, vaguely connected to the nonhuman world, vaguely connected to the human world too. And I wonder if that has to do with narrative structure, or the lack of it, over a lengthy cascade of moments that wash together.
It’s interesting because with a photobook, for example, you often experience something similar. Much of the book’s flow is invented by the viewer. And to be fair, many of the images in a photobook might be instantly forgotten too. But usually there’s a handful that linger in the mind. And that’s because (in my opinion) there are visual heights and valleys, tense contrasts, even denouements of sensual experience that have nothing to do with words: a strong color, an exciting shape, etc. But if, when working with language, your point is to wash all moments into the infinitude of other moments, maybe one shouldn’t be expected to remember anything? Hmmm, I’m not sure. I’ll have to come back to this one, I think. In the meantime, I’ll try one of Sze’s earlier books. I’m not ready to give up on the work yet. I feel like there’s something I just haven’t learned to see clearly enough. Onward!