Arthur Sze, Sight Lines

SIGHT LINES, Arthur Sze. Copper Canyon Press, PO Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368, 2019, 70 pages, $16 paper,

Today I started a couple different poetry books and for some reason—I don’t blame the poets—couldn’t get any traction. Then I stumbled across this one, sat down, and read it all the way through. Arthur Sze has long been one of my favorite poets, and Sight Lines is a book I already knew well. I’ve studied the poems and shared them with my writing group. But reading the whole book, all in one go, was a very different experience. (I recommend both approaches.)

Sight Lines is Sze’s 10th book of poetry and it won the National Book Award. The Copper Canyon editors call it “prismatic,” and “stunning.” They’re not wrong. I love the way Sze both eulogizes our crippled planet and celebrates its images. The nest of a spotted towhee, Norway maples, cedar trees, deer, lichen, wild irises. Nothing escapes notice: “a fern rises out // of the crotch of an ‘õhi’a tree and droplets have collected  / on a mule’s foot fern” (“In the Bronx”). Everywhere nature’s fragility is both itself and a reminder—singing to us—of our own fragility: “…only look yes look at me now because you are blink  / about to leave” (“Lichen Song”).

Here’s a poem from a dog-eared page:


When she hands you a whale vertabra,
you marvel at its heft, at a black

pebble lodged in a lateral nook;
the hollyhocks out the window

stretch into sunshine; a dictionary
in the room is open to xeriscape;

the sidewalk and gravel heat all day
and release warmth into the night;

the woman who sits and writes
sees pressed aspen board, framers

setting window headers and door-
jambs—here no polar bears rummage

at the city dump, no seal-oil lamps
flicker in the tide of darkness—

you know the influx of afternoon
clouds, thunder, ball lightning,

wavering lines of rain that evaporate
before they strike the ground,

as you carefully set the whale bone
on the glass table next to the television.

—Arthur Sze

To read more about Arthur Sze and Sight Lines, visit his page at Copper Canyon. At Poetry Foundation I learned that he has a new book,  The Glass Constellation: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2021) which I will need to get my hands on.

Arthur Sze’s Compass Rose

I have fallen into a pattern of getting my poetry book read in the evening, and posting as late as 10 or 11:00. It doesn’t make for a scintillating blogpost.

I have not, however, fallen into any sort of pattern with my apprehension and appeciation of the poems themselves. Every book offers surprises and delights. Every book has taught me something about my own poetry. I tend to tell stories in my poems, I like to tell stories, and just when I’m sure that this book is too different from what I do, from what I can understand or use, I find my mind expanding to include it — even to feeling the resonances with my own work.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in this last week of National Poetry Month, I’m beginning to drag my feet a bit. But the poems renew me.

So far as narrative versus that other element I keep butting up against this month — of not merely lyric but expressionistic poems — Arthur Sze has one foot in each camp. Stories do unfold here, and characters are clearly introduced. At the same time, images leap out and seize me by the imagination, and don’t let go.

After a New Moon 

Each evening you gaze in the southwest sky
as a crescent extends in argentine light.
When the moon was new, your mind was
desireless, but now both wax to the world.
While your neighbor’s field is cleared,
your corner plot is strewn with dessicated
sunflower stalks. You scrutinize the bare
apricot limbs that have never set fruit,
the wisteria that has never blossomed,
and wince, hearing how, at New Year’s,
teens bashed in a door and clubbed strangers.
Near a pond, someone kicks a dog out
of a pickup. Each second, a river edged
with ice shifts course. Last summer’s
exposed tractor tire is nearly buried
under silt. An owl lifts from a poplar,
while the moon, no, the human mind
moves from brightest bright to darkest dark.

Arthur Sze, Compass Rose (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)