Most of us are familiar with and even a touch enthralled by theories of parallel realities and universes, advanced dimensions, and the “butterfly effect” in which a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world is said to result several weeks later in a hurricane elsewhere. We sense the physics of such unlikely-seeming simultaneities and causalities, and poetry is an apt mode for their expression. In his tenth collection of poems, Sight Lines, Arthur Sze generously enacts such relationships by way of a glory of images, layerings, and repetitions.
Sight Lines thrives on repetitions of various natures, though not by way of the familiar anaphora or epistrophe. Sze isn’t interested in chant or building to crescendo, but in something more aligned with, say, the cosmic microwave background in an expanding universe. His repetitions appear in the form of frequent repetend (in which a word is cast throughout a poem, or in this case a collection, without apparent pattern) and antanaclasis (the repetition of a word whose meaning changes with successive use) or polyptoton (the repetition of a word in a different form), as in “I spot bear prints,” “spotted towhee,” “a desert fivespot,” or in the mention of deer in apple orchards, an image that appears and reappears in differing contexts throughout the collection, or the repeated use of verbs such as “arc” and “thud,” or nouns such as “pond,” “glass,” “peony”. The effect is a feeling of randomness slowly revealing intention, as when, in life, we notice synchronicities and begin to ask ourselves if our minds are creating or are they recognizing existing connectivities.
Sight Lines opens with a series of imagistic unfoldings that combine visual and auditory leaps with contrasts in directionality, dimensionality, emptiness and fullness, quiet elation, and not so quiet suffering. Here are lines from the first sequence of “Water Calligraphy”:
A green turtle in broth is brought to the table— I stare at an irregular formation of rocks
above a pond asurface, a moon. As I step back and forth,
the moon slides from partial to full to partial and then into emptiness, but no
moon’s in the sky, just slanting sunlight, leafing willows along Slender West Lake,
parked cars outside an apartment complex where, against a background of chirping birds
and car horns, two women bicker…
When Sze writes “A green turtle in broth is brought to the table—” we see a creature both in and out of its element. Soup is derived from water for human sustenance as well as pleasure, while the image also recalls the living amphibian’s home of a pond. The turtle is green and the ambience of the line is lit by this suggestion of birth and fertility and color at the same time that Sze forces us to confront our uneasy relation to the fact that the turtle evoking all of this life is dead. The beauty of the world, and the cost of being part of it, is thus summed in a single line.
A formal intimacy between words, among images, is created by repetitions and auditory relations, as in the alliteration and slant rhymes of “turtle” and “table,” “broth” and “brought,” and, in the line that follows, with the surprise chime of “rocks.” Sze’s declarative, “I stare” announces the irregular sight lines of the poet’s gaze that will drive, rupture, and invigorate the book. While “irregular lines” delineate rocks “above a pond,” they also recall the mappings of the turtle’s shell afloat in soup.
All of this reverb is riveting, thrilling actually. The speaker will “spot, on the water’s /surface, a moon,” with “spot” serving as verb, but also as noun recalling the shape of the “pond,” while preparing us for the sphere of the lunar. Inter-directionality kicks in as the speaker steps “back and forth” just as the moon will “slide from partial to full / to partial and then into emptiness.” The enjambment of the “no” at the end of the line calls our attention to the full moon of its “o.” In the fourth stanza and fifth stanzas the poet extends these verbal mirrorings to “parked cars” (whose rooftops recall, as though from a past life, the tectonic plates of the turtle’s back) coupled with the aural contrasts of “chirping birds,” “car horns,” and “two women” bickering. Eventually, the turtle will reappear “snipped into pieces,” its transformation echoing the shift of tea leaves in a cup that occurs “after a sip,” thus altering “the character individual” to “the number eight.” Readers of such tea leaves can divine the multiplying power of relations and resemblances they are headed into if they keep reading, as nature, of which we are ever reminded we are an omnivorous part, repeats herself by way of the poet’s eye.
In an interview with Jordan Nakamura, Sze describes the process of cutting up “one liners” and arranging and rearranging their order across the floor, and in an erotic poem titled “Transfigurations” (eros is a human-to-human, sensually gratifying as well as soothing presence throughout Sight Lines), the speaker mentions having “read from the Book of Changes.” Indeed the long lines and the repeated end-dashes suggest the yarrow sticks of the Book of Changes and the language is often oracular, but Sze’s project is more disruptive than this allusion to equanimity implies. Sight Lines feels more like a marriage (or clash) of The Book of Changes with Mallarmé’s A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance. As the book proceeds, the spot-on, lyrically gorgeous revealings of “Water Calligraphy” give way at times to juxtapositions of parallel realities that are, by contrast, more jarring, as well as uniquely quirked. (A starter example appears in “Cloud Hands,” the poem Copper Canyon Press chose for the back cover of the book, but Sze gets much more interesting and complex in a poem like “Light Echoes,” for example, that begins “In the parking lot we look up at the Milky Way: / a poacher aims a rifle at a black rhinoceros: // a marble boat disappears in smog” and continues for six more stanzas of equally estranged yet compelling juxtapositions before ending with full imagistic force on an allusion to the duende of Lorca’s “black sounds” that successfully echoes back up through the poem to the image of the Milky Way and a merciless gun shot into the darkness of an great living being.)
Sze’s occasional “strike-through lines”—familiar to readers from his previous Compass Rose—suggest the intersection of optional trajectories, in keeping with Sze’s observation: “parallel lines touch in the infinite, the infinite is here—.” Things could have gone one way, “… I … frown/ fidget, let go;” instead, they go another “… I smile, frown / fidget, let go—.” In these lines, as in the polyvocality of poems in which lichen and salt speak, we also find that vitalizing ingredient, humor. Here is the lichen in “Lichen Song” having the last word in an address to the human species.
… I am flinging your words and if you absorb not blot my song you could learn you are not alone in pain and grief though you’ve instilled pain and grief. You can urge the dare and thrill of bliss if and when you stop to look at a rock at a fence post but you cough only look yes look at me now because you are blink about to leave—
On the opposite side of a blink, beneath our briefly closed lids, we may glimpse a revealing hypnogogic image, or, nothing at all. Intermittently and throughout Sight Lines, singular sentences appear on the otherwise blank page, like slash marks or perhaps like the arrows of sight shooting across an open field. One way to read that gesture and those lines, which will eventually accrue to comprise the title poem, might also be as the gestalt of the strike-through phenomena. A visual coming forth of the line balancing out visually negated words and phrases, though not the same words or phrases. Sze’s question is, “What line of sight leads to revelation?” His answer is in the multiplicities of view these poems depict and in the risk of change and chance they enact.
Sawnie Morris’s collection Her, Infinite, won the New Issues Poetry Award judged by Major Jackson and was published in 2016. Sawnie’s writing about poetry and poets has won a Texas Pen Literary Award and appeared in The Kenyon Review, Contemporary Literary Criticism, and Boston Review. She is the inaugural poet laureate of Taos, New Mexico.
Header photo by aphotostory, courtesy Shutterstock.