Part of the project of modern poets, picking up where people like William Blake and William Wordsworth left off, has been to reanimate animism. To get us into better relations with the numinous. To work, in other words, in search of sources and perceived spirits of an older nature, and to work under the assumption that things are related in countless invisible ways. One way into Arthur Sze’s poems is to see him in this light, as a reanimator of animism: “Now hammerhead sharks / whirlpool inside you.” Another way in is via the richness of Chinese poetry, both ancient and contemporary, some of which he has painstakingly translated (and gathered in The Silk Dragon, a title whose figure Sze has called his “metaphor for poetry,” a creature who’s part silkworm and part magic).
Yet a third way in: to read his oeuvre in environmental terms, not only as nature poetry, that easy but too-docile category, but as a record of radically close observation performed with flourishing imagination in one particular place on Earth: Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Southwest more generally. Sze, a New Yorker by birth, has lived in Santa Fe since the early 1970s, when he arrived there from the University of California-Berkeley with little more than a backpack and his curiosity. At Berkeley, he’d studied with Josephine Miles, having found his way there — and to poetry — after taking a workshop with Denise Levertov while he was a student at MIT. It was Levertov who pointed him west, toward California, and it was Miles who suggested Santa Fe. There are a dozen other ways into Sze’s shimmering poems, but these three are evident in, for instance, a few early lines — descriptive and concrete, in detail and in terms of the shape they make on the page — in which you catch a glimpse of Sze the animist, the translator, and the naturalist:
A snake slides through the
where it has cut a
A snake, observed with a tracker’s careful eye, seems to speak in the motion it makes and the way that motion registers in the whispering vegetation. The lines are themselves a translation of the fluency of the snake.
There seems to be a tendency to describe Sze’s poetry as “quiet,” and even though it’s meant as a compliment, I find the adjective mostly nonsensical in Sze’s case. “Nail my spine to wood. I cannot live,” he writes in a poem written when he was twenty-three. There’s nothing quiet about that, nor about the hammerhead sharks spinning within a man. And “wrapping / a chrysoprase heart in a box,” he would write 45 years later, “you look at a series of incidentals / and pull an invisible thread through them all.” Is it the stitching that’s done quietly, that evokes for some that word? At any rate, these poems and hundreds more are, for the first time, brought together in The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems. Sze’s wide-ranging and wonderful oeuvre, ten books, a restlessness that makes each one a new beginning. You can track his craft across The Glass Constellation, moving volume through volume, ending with a selection of new works called The White Orchard. Surreal would also be the wrong word. Magic is a little bit better. For although Sze’s animism threads what seem like incidental or even incongruous images — he long taught a class at the Institute of American Indian Arts called “The Poetic Image” — he escapes surrealism’s slippery dance with meaninglessness: always he’s invoking a particular world. “I stare into a black bowl and smell / whisked green tea, see a flap of tails / and orange koi surging in a stream.”
JN: Your poems are almost always written in a present tense. On the other hand, they feel deeply haunted, a present thick with ghosts and possibilities. A river carrying the past into the future is always running under the sound of your words. What draws you to rendering things in present tense? How does poetry relate, in your view, to memory? I mean, are you — as you write in one poem — “following the thread / of recollection through a lifetime”?
AS: I like to render things in present tense, because the present is immediate and commands attention. In my early years when I was translating ancient Chinese poetry, I was struck by how Wang Wei’s poem, “Deer Fence,” opening with, “Empty mountain/s, not see man,” has, with presence and absence, so much immediacy and force, and the present tense of the verb is an essential part of its power. Of course, the present is always becoming the past, so I like to use a present tense where the present is like the tip of an iceberg, where what is unseen exerts a pressure, even urgency on what is seen.
In that regard, poetry and memory are intimately related. And memory is not something static and fixed but is something that is alive, has force, and is constantly changing. My poetry frequently relies on memory, but it is not bound by it; and it is fine if I need to adapt an actual situation or make things up, because my commitment is to the imaginative truth. In addition, when I’m writing through memory, I’m not consciously “following the thread / of recollection through a lifetime” — that would be too burdensome. Instead, I’m writing more by associational, synchronistic leaps than by linear unspooling time. In that way, I try to balance rigor and spontaneity. I need to be able to make unexpected leaps that appear disruptive or disjunctive, in the service of revealing or truing the complexity at hand. To that end, my writing routine is flexible and not regimental. I like to start writing in the dark and write through sunrise into daylight. I work steadily, and by accretion, rather than by writing in a torrent, and I find that the physical rhythm of moving from darkness into light, where physical objects in a landscape emerge is immensely helpful. Also, because I am not fully awake and not fully in control of my language, my writing is more spontaneous, can wander more, and this associational process helps me discover images, musical phrases, fragments that I couldn’t otherwise find.
Rather than an “eternal present,” I’m more aware of a present that is transient, and, because it is fleeting, I am frequently trying to slow time down to make a reader notice and pay attention without averting one’s gaze to what is happening. In this protracted state of slowing down time, I find that a singular image, or cluster of images, becomes a crucial vehicle in this endeavor. I want to come back to Wang Wei, where the ending to his poem is an image of sunlight shining on a piece of green moss. That image is radiant, meaningful, and thrilling, because it concentrates and brings into open air a moment of inner revelation. That image also becomes a vehicle for emotion. Instead of a culminating declaration where a speaker might say, “Ah,” the elation is contained in the image and becomes the thing itself. My poems don’t go about consciously searching for revelation, but I do believe in this amazing power and efficacy of the poetic image. One image by itself isn’t sufficient to be a complete poem, but when cogently harnessed, that concentrated visual focus, that clarity and present tense intensity, can create a radiant moment that is paradoxically transient yet enduring and profound. Then by playing with and extending recurrent images, I often discover an underlying structure to a memorable poem.