Poetry endlessly branching. Poems by Arthur Sze
Poetry endlessly branching
Poems by Arthur Sze
The blue-black mountains are etched
with ice. I drive south in fading light.
The lights of my car set out before
me and disappear before my very eyes.
And as I approach thirty, the distances
are shorter than I guess? The mind
travels at the speed of light. But for
how many people are the passions
ironwood, ironwood that hardens and hardens?
Take the ex-musician, insurance salesman,
who sells himself a policy on his own life;
or the magician who has himself locked
in a chest and thrown into the sea,
only to discover he is caught in his own chains.
I want a passion that grows and grows.
To feel, think, act, and be defined
by your actions, thoughts, feelings.
As in the bones of a hand in an X-ray,
I want the clear white light to work
against the fuzzy blurred edges of the darkness:
even if the darkness precedes and follows
us, we have a chance, briefly, to shine.
THE LEAVES OF A DREAM ARE THE LEAVES OF AN ONION
Red oak leaves rustle in the wind.
Inside a dream, you dream the leaves
scattered on dirt, and feel it
as an instance of the chance configuration
to your life. All night you feel
red horses galloping in your blood,
hear a piercing siren, and are in love
with the inexplicable. You walk
to your car, find the hazard lights
blinking: find a rust-brown knife, a trout,
a smashed violin in your hands.
And then you wake, inside the dream,
to find tangerines ripening in the silence.
You peel the leaves of the dream
as you would peel the leaves off an onion.
The layers of the dream have no core,
no essence. You find a tattoo of
a red scorpion on your body.
You simply laugh, shiver in the frost,
and step back into the world.
A Galapagos turtle has nothing to do
with the world of the neutrino.
The ecology of the Galapagos Islands
has nothing to do with a pair of scissors.
The cactus by the window has nothing to do
with the invention of the wheel.
The invention of the telescope
has nothing to do with a red jaguar.
No. The invention of the scissors
has everything to do with the invention of the telescope.
A map of the world has everything to do
with the cactus by the window.
The world of the quark has everything to do
with a jaguar circling in the night.
The man who sacrifices himself and throws a Molotov
cocktail at a tank has everything to do
with a sunflower that bends to the light.
Open a window and touch the sun,
or feel the wet maple leaves flicker in the rain.
Watch a blue crab scuttle in clear water,
or find a starfish in the dirt.
Describe the color green to the color blind,
or build a house out of pain.
The world is more than you surmise.
Take the pines, green-black, slashed by light,
etched by wind, on the island
across the riptide body of water.
Describe the thousand iridescent needles
to a blind albino Tarahumara.
In a bubble chamber, in a magnetic field,
an electron spirals and spirals in to the center,
but the world is more than such a dance:
a spiraling in to the point of origin,
a spiraling out in the form of a
wet leaf, a blue crab, or a green house.
The heat ripples ripple the cactus.
Crushed green glass in a parking lot
or a pile of rhinoceros bones
give off heat, though you might not notice it.
The heat of a star can be measured
under a spectrometer, but not
the heat of the mind, or the heat of Angkor Wat.
And the rubble of Angkor Wat
gives off heat; so do apricot blossoms
in the night, green fish, black bamboo,
or a fisherman fishing in the snow.
And an angstrom of shift turns the pleasure
into pain. The ice that rips the fingerprint
off your hand gives off heat;
and so does each moment of existence.
A red red leaf, disintegrating in the dirt,
burns with the heat of an acetylene flame.
And the heat rippling off
the tin roof of the adobe house
is simply the heat you see.
What is the secret to a Guarneri violin?
Wool dipped in an indigo bath turns bluer
when it oxidizes in the air. Marat is
changed in the minds of the living.
A shot of tequila is related to Antarctica
shrinking. A crow in a bar or red snapper on ice
is related to the twelve-tone method
of composition. And what does the tuning of tympani
have to do with the smell of your hair?
To feel, at thirty, you have come this far—
to see a bell over a door as a bell
over a door, to feel the care and precision
of this violin is no mistake, nor is the
sincerity and shudder of passion by which you live.
Crush an apple, crush a possibility.
No single method can describe the world;
therein is the pleasure
of chaos, of leaps in the mind.
A man slumped over a desk in an attorney’s office
is a parrotfish caught in a seaweed mass.
A man who turns to the conversation in a bar
is a bluefish hooked on a cigarette.
Is the desire and collapse of desire in an unemployed carpenter
the instinct of salmon to leap upstream?
The smell of eucalyptus can be incorporated
into a theory of aggression.
The pattern of interference in a hologram
replicates the apple, knife, horsetails on the table,
but misses the sense of chaos, distorts
in its singular view. Then
touch, shine, dance, sing, be, becoming, be.
THE MOMENT OF CREATION
A painter indicates the time of day
in a still life: afternoon light slants on a knife,
lemons, green wine bottle with some red wine.
We always leave something unfinished?
We want x and having x want y and having y want z?
I try to sense the moment of creation
in the shine on a sliced lemon. I want to
connect throwing gravel on mud to being hungry.
“Eat,” a man from Afghanistan said
and pointed to old rotting apples in the opened car trunk.
I see a line of men dancing a cloud dance;
two women dance intricate lightning steps
at either end. My mistakes and failures
pulse in me even as moments of joy,
but I want the bright moments to resonate out
like a gamelan gong. I want to make
the intricate tesselated moments of our lives
a floor of jade, obsidian, turquoise, ebony, lapis.
THE SHAPES OF LEAVES
Ginkgo, cottonwood, pin oak, sweet gum, tulip tree:
our emotions resemble leaves and alive
to their shapes we are nourished.
Have you felt the expanse and contours of grief
along the edges of a big Norway maple?
Have you winced at the orange flare
searing the curves of a curling dogwood?
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.
I have seen sandhill cranes moving in an open field,
a single white whooping crane in the flock.
And I have traveled along the contours
of leaves that have no name. Here
where the air is wet and the light is cool,
I feel what others are thinking and do not speak,
I know pleasure in the veins of a sugar maple,
I am living at the edge of a new leaf.
LOOKING BACK ON THE MUCKLESHOOT RESERVATION
FROM GALISTEO STREET, SANTA FE
The bow of a Muckleshoot canoe, blessed
with eagle feather and sprig of yellow cedar,
is launched into a bay. A girl watches
her mother fry venison slabs in a skillet—
drops of blood sizzle, evaporate. Because
a neighbor feeds them, they eat wordlessly;
the silence breaks when she occasionally
gags, reaches into her throat, pulls out hair.
Gone is the father, riled, arguing with his boss,
who drove to the shooting range after work;
gone the accountant who embezzled funds,
displayed a pickup, and proclaimed a winning
flush at the casino. You donate chicken soup
and clothes but never learn if they arrive
at the south end of the city. Your small
acts are sandpiper tracks in wet sand.
Newspapers, plastic containers, beer bottles
fill the bins along the sloping one-way street.
A GREAT SQUARE HAS NO CORNERS
An actress feigning death for one hundred seconds gasps.
A man revs
and races a red Mustang up and down the street.
A potter opens a hillside kiln;
he removes a molten bowl,
and, dipping it
in cold water,
it hisses, turns black, cracks.
In despair, a pearl is a sphere.
In Bombay, a line of ear cleaners are standing in a street.
On a mesa top,
the south windows of a house shatter;
underground uranium miners
are releasing explosives.
A rope beginning to unravel in the mind
is, like red antlers,
the axis of a dream.
What is the secret to stopping time?
A one-eyed calligrapher
writes with a mop, “A great square has no corners.”
I notice headlights out the living room window
then catch the bass in a pickup as it drives by.
I am shocked to learn that doctors collected
the urine of menopausal nuns in Italy to extract
gonadotropins. And is that what one draws,
in infinitesimal dose, out of a vial?
I remember a steel wool splinter in my finger
and how difficult it was to discern, extract
under a magnifying glass; yet--blue mold,
apple dropping from branch--it is hard to see
up close when, at the periphery, the unexpected
easily catches the eye. Last Thursday night,
we looked through binoculars at the full moon,
watched it darken and darken until, eclipsed,
it glowed ferrous-red. By firelight, we glowed;
my fingertips flared when I rubbed your shoulders,
softly bit your ear. The mind is a tuning fork
that we strike, and, struck, in the syzygy
of a moment, we find the skewed, tangled
passions of a day begin to straighten, align, hum.
PIG’S HEAVEN INN
Red chiles in a tilted basket catch sunlight—
we walk past a pile of burning mulberry leaves
into Xidi village, enter a courtyard, notice
an inkstone, engraved with calligraphy, filled
with water and cassia petals, smell Ming
dynasty redwood panels. As a musician lifts
a small xun to his mouth and blows, I see kiwis
hanging from branches above a moon doorway:
a grandmother, once the youngest concubine,
propped in a chair with bandages around
her knees, complains of incessant pain;
someone spits in the street. As a second
musician plucks strings on a zither, pomelos
blacken on branches; a woman peels chestnuts;
two men in a flat-bottomed boat gather
duckweed out of a river. The notes splash,
silvery, onto cobblestone, and my fingers
suddenly ache: during the Cultural Revolution,
my aunt’s husband leapt out of a third-story
window; at dawn I mistook the cries of
birds for rain. When the musicians pause,
Yellow Mountain pines sway near Bright
Summit Peak; a pig scuffles behind an enclosure;
someone blows their nose. Traces of the past
are wisps of mulberry smoke rising above
roof tiles; and before we too vanish, we hike
to where three trails converge: hundreds
of people are stopped ahead of us, hundreds
come up behind: we form a rivulet of people
funneling down through a chasm in the granite.
THE UNNAMABLE RIVER
Is it in the anthracite face of a coal miner,
crystalized in the veins and lungs of a steel
worker, pulverized in the grimy hands of a railroad engineer?
Is it in a child naming a star, coconuts washing
ashore, dormant in a volcano along the Rio Grande?
You can travel the four thousand miles of the Nile
to its source and never find it.
You can climb the five highest peaks of the Himalayas
and never recognize it.
You can gaze through the largest telescope
and never see it.
But it’s in the capillaries of your lungs.
It’s in the space as you slice open a lemon.
It’s in a corpse burning on the Ganges,
in rain splashing on banana leaves.
Perhaps you have to know you are about to die
to hunger for it. Perhaps you have to go
alone into the jungle armed with a spear
to truly see it. Perhaps you have to
have pneumonia to sense its crush.
But it’s also in the scissor hands of a clock.
It’s in the precessing motion of a top
when a torque makes the axis of rotation describe a cone:
and the cone spinning on a point gathers
past, present, future.
THE UNNAMABLE RIVER
In a crude theory of perception, the apple you
see is supposed to be a copy of the actual apple,
but who can step out of his body to compare the two?
Who can step out of his life and feel
the Milky Way flow out of his hands?
An unpicked apple dies on a branch;
that is all we know of it.
It turns black and hard, a corpse on the Ganges.
Then go ahead and map out three thousand miles of the Yangtze;
walk each inch, feel its surge and
flow as you feel the surge and flow in your own body.
And the spinning cone of a precessing top
is a form of existence that gathers and spins death and life into one.
It is in the duration of words, but beyond words--
river river river, river river.
The coal miner may not know he has it.
The steel worker may not know he has it.
The railroad engineer may not know he has it.
But it is there. It is in the smell
of an avocado blossom, and in the true passion of a kiss.
Arthur Sze is the author of nine books of poetry: The Ginkgo Light (Copper Canyon Press, forthcoming in 2009), Quipu (Copper Canyon, 2005), The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (Copper Canyon, 2001), The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (Copper Canyon, 1998), Archipelago (Copper Canyon, 1995), River River (Lost Roads, 1987), Dazzled (Floating Island, 1982), Two Ravens (1976; revised edition, Tooth of Time, 1984), and The Willow Wind (1972; revised edition, Tooth of Time, 1981). His poems have appeared internationally in such publications as The American Poetry Review; Boston Review; Carnet de Route (Paris); Chicago Review; Conjunctions; Denver Quarterly; Field; The Georgia Review; Harvard Magazine; The Iowa Review; The Kenyon Review; Kyoto Journal; Manoa; New Letters; The New Yorker; Orion; The Paris Review; Ploughshares; The Poetry Foundation Website; Raster (Amsterdam); Unitas (Taipei); Virginia Quarterly Review; American Alphabets; The Best American Poetry; Hotel Parnassus: Poetry International 2007 (Amsterdam); In Company: An Anthology of New Mexico Poets after 1960; 2007 Pamirs Poetry Journey: The First Chinese-English Poetry Festival (Huangshan Mountain, China); Poets of the New Century; Pushcart Prize. His poems have been translated into Albanian, Bosnian, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Romanian, and Turkish. He is the first Poet Laureate of Santa Fe (2006-2008) and is the recipient of a Western States Book Award for Translation (2002); a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award (1998-2000); an Asian American Literary Award (1999); a Balcones Poetry Prize (1999); a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1997); an American Book Award (1996); a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry (1995); three Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry fellowships (1983, 1994, 1997); two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowships (1982, 1993); a Howard Foundation Fellowship (1991); a New Mexico Arts Division Interdisciplinary Grant (1988); and the Eisner Prize, University of California at Berkeley (1971). He was a Visiting Hurst Professor at Washington University, a Doenges Visiting Artist at Mary Baldwin College, and has conducted residencies at Brown University, Bard College, and Naropa University. He is also a Corresponding Editor for Manoa and is a professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts."Poetry is the essential language that, endlessly branching, enables us to live deeply and envision what matters most. Although it has been said that "poetry makes nothing happen," poetry dissolves boundaries"it is the finite that puts us in touch with the infinite--and , as languages and species vanish every day, it is a crucial vehicle by which we apprehend the urgency and precarious splendor of existence." said Sze.