Sunrise over alpine lake in autumn

Six Poems by Arthur Sze

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Downwind

When the air clears after days of smoke,
you yearn to swim in an alpine lake
that mirrors clouds and wash the scent
of burned pines from your hair;
from the west, smoke has traveled
a thousand miles, the point of ignition
where a pine snapped a transmission line.

When the air clears after days of smoke,
you notice the serrated edges along
apple leaves, locate a point of ignition
in a word, a jab: a man chalks
a cue stick and, slamming the white ball
into a pyramid of balls, feels for a millisecond
a point of ignition and surge in the clatter.

When the air clears after days of smoke,
you believe you were simply casualty
downwind, but, as you hold
a Rubik’s Cube of time in your hands,
the orange sunrise is nowhere,
everywhere, and—damn—that the pieces
are pieces you cannot flip back.

 

 

Parallax

“Kwakwha.”
“Askwali.”
The shift in Hopi when a man or woman says “thank you”
becomes a form of parallax.
A man travels

from Mindanao to Kyushu and says his inner geography
is enlarged by each new place.
Is it?
Might he not grow more by staring for twenty-four hours
at a single pine needle?

I watch a woman tip an ashtray and empty
a few ashes into her mouth,
but ah, I want
other soliloquies.
I want equivalents to Chu-ko Liang sending his fire ships

downstream into Ts’ao Ts’ao’s fleet.
It does not mean
a geneticist must quit
and devote his life to the preservation of rhinoceros,
but it might mean

watching a thousand snow geese drift on water
as the sky darkens minute by minute.
“Kwakwha,”
“Askwali,”
whenever, wherever.

 

 

Axolotl

I may practice divination with the bones
of an eel, but the world would be
just as cruel were it within my will.

The yellowing leaves of the honey locust
would still be yellowing, and a woman
riding in a hearse would still grieve and grieve.

We don’t live in a hypothetical world,
and yet the world would be nothing
without hypothetical dreaming. I hope no

ultimate set of laws to nature exists;
maybe, instead, there’s only layering.
Maybe you look in a store window and see

twenty-four televisions with twenty-four images:
now the explosion of a napalm bomb,
now the face of an axolotl.

 

 

Ice Floe

Nails dropped off a roof onto flagstone;
slow-motion shatter of a windowpane;
the hushed sound when a circular saw cutting through plywood
stops, and splinters of wood are drifting in air;
lipstick graffiti on a living-room wall;
cold stinging your eardrums;
braking suddenly along a curve, and the car spinning,
holding your breath as the side-view mirror is snapped by a sign pole;
the snap as a purple chalk line marks an angular cut on black Cellutex;
dirt under your nails,
as you dig up green onions with your bare hands;
fiber plaster setting on a wall;
plugging in an iron and noticing the lights dim in the other room;
sound of a pencil drawn along the edge of a trisquare;
discovering your blurred vision is caused by having two contacts in each eye;
thud as the car slams into a snowbank and hits a fence;
smell of a burnt yam;
the bones of your wrist being crushed;
under a geranium leaf, a mass of spiders
moving slowly on tiny threads up and down and across to different stems.

 

 

 

Retrieval

A train passes through the Sonoran Desert
when a sudden sandstorm at night sweeps
through the windows: everyone gags
and curses—sand, eddying under the dim
ceiling lights, lodges on eyelashes, clothes,
hair. Memory is encounter: each incident,

a bee thrumming in a hive. You catch
the aroma of incense in a courtyard
but fret you have sleepwalked for hours.
Observing grasshopper legs in a nook,
you brood then exult that a bat roosts
under the eave, yet fail to notice

quince fattening on branches, ache
that your insights may be white smoke
to flame. Though you note toothpicks
at a cash register, an elk head with antlers
mounted to the back of a passing trailer,
you are given a penlight but, within

minutes, misplace it. Without premonition,
striding up a cobblestone street,
through a Pátzcuaro doorway, you spot
a raised coffin with dissolving tapers
by each corner, and harbor a sting
then tang, wax then honey on the tongue.
 

 

X-Ray

In my mind a lilac begins to leaf

before it begins to leaf.
A new leaf

is a new moon.
As the skin of a chameleon

reflects temperature, light, emotion,
an X-ray of my hands

reflects chance, intention, hunger?
You can, in X-ray
diffraction,
study the symmetry of crystals,

but here, now,
the caesura marks a shift in the mind,

the vicissitudes
of starlight,

a luna moth opening its wings.

 

 

 

Arthur SzeArthur Sze’s latest book of poetry is The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021), in which the last five of these poems are published. His previous book, Sight Lines, received the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry.

Read Derek Sheffield’s review of The Glass Constellation, published in concert with these poems.

Read poetry by Arthur Sze previously appearing in Terrain.org, as well as our interview with Arthur Sze, “Charging the Through Line.”

Header photo by Yevhenii Chulovskyi, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Arthur Sze by Sharlett Bravo.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.