Reviewed By Florian Gargaillo
- Copper Canyon Press (2019)
- 80 pages
A “sight line” refers to an axis extending from an observer’s eye to an object under scrutiny. It is fitting that this term supplies the title of Arthur Sze’s new collection as the book is deeply preoccupied with connections—be it between the human and natural world, or between the historical and the everyday. Many of the poems take the form of lists depicting various people, things, places, and events. But the precise relation between any given pair is far from simplistic.
The long opening poem, “Water Calligraphy,” contains several of the book’s most striking parallels. In one section, juxtaposition allows Sze to consider the impact of human life on the natural world:
At a teak table, with family and friends,
we eat Dungeness crab, but, as I break
apart shell and claws, I hear a wounded elk
shot in the bosque.
The scene of the poet eating crab “with family and friends” is yoked into a parallel with the shooting of a “wounded elk”: a scene designed to elicit pity even from those who feel no qualm in consuming meat. The comparison forces him—forces the reader—to ponder their complicity with the cruelty inflicted daily on animals. Thus “but” in the second line is really “and.” What is the moral difference between eating meat or fish and the act of killing that makes it possible to do so? The poet is forced to step back and reconsider what might otherwise appear to be an idyllic meal.
In yet another section of “Water Calligraphy,” Sze uses a parallel to illustrate how broad ecological processes manifest themselves in everyday life:
In the West, wildfires scar each summer—
water beads on beer cans at a lunch counter—
you do not want to see exploding propane tanks
Though connected simply by dashes, the minute “water beads on beer cans” at a particular “lunch counter” become a symptom and warning of the wildfires that now consume the California landscape yearly in an age of global warming. At no point are we allowed to detach ourselves from this scene. The third line implicates the reader in the ecological tragedy with a sharp opening “you.”
This parallel structure is put to fruitful use beyond the unit of the poem. On four different pages in Sight Lines, there appears a single line bookended by dashes. These lines present striking scenes—usually of a historical, political, or ecological nature—which the reader must then relate to the lyric poems that come before and after. They allow Sze to weigh his responsibility, as an individual and a poet, in the face of wider events. Take, by way of example, the line: “—During the Cultural Revolution, a boy saw his mother shot by a firing squad—” In the poem that precedes it, “Unpacking a Globe,” Sze gazes at the Pacific Ocean and considers how he would “want to live on this planet.” The single line makes such meditations appear a little privileged, but it also gives them a renewed urgency. The question of how one should “live on this planet” becomes all the more urgent in a world where children see their parents killed by a firing squad.
At times, the weight of personal responsibility can overwhelm the speaker of Sze’s poems. The traffic scene in “Doppler Effect” is just such an example:
Stopped in cars, we are waiting to accelerate
along different trajectories. I catch the rising
pitch of a train—today one hundred nine people
died in a stampede converging at a bridge;
radioactive water trickles underground
toward the Pacific Ocean; nickel and copper
particulates contaminate the Brocade River.
Will this planet sustain ten billion people?
The poem builds in intensity from a particular traffic stop, to the tragedy of 109 dead in a stampede, to ecological disasters in the Pacific Ocean and the Brocade River. The series culminates with an existential question about the future of the human race. But Sze quickly backs away from the vastness of his inquiry, recognizing it as a dead end:
Ah, switch it: a spider plant leans toward
a glass door, and six offshoots dangle from it
Though writing about the Earth’s future is not beyond his reach, Sze acknowledges that his true home, as a poet, lies among particulars: say, the distinctiveness of a specific spider plant leaning towards a specific door.
The impulse to write responsibly and to remain in touch with the wider world can lead to rigidity and self-importance. Sze counters this risk in “First Nothing” by admitting to his own smallness, and the smallness of all individuals, in the face of history:
you think you own a car, a house,
this blue-zigzagged shirt, but you just borrow these things.
Yesterday, you constructed an aqueduct of dreams
and stood at Gibraltar,
but you possess nothing.
This philosophy is reflected in the use of strikethroughs throughout Sight Lines. To Sze’s mind, all statements are ripe for revision, and no observation he offers up can stand with complete authority. Strikethroughs make such second looks visible. In “Water Calligraphy,” for instance:
as I write the strokes of moon, I let the brush
swerve rest for a moment before I lift it
And make the one stroke hook—ah, it’s all
in that hook—there, I levitate: no mistakes
will last, even regret is lovely—my hand
trembles; but if I find the gaps resting places,
I cut the sinews of an ox
The most important thing about these edits is that the old words are not simply erased or supplanted by new words. The marks keep the original terms in view, even as they significantly qualify them. It is this degree of self-questioning, this wariness of authority in himself and others, that makes Sze such a valuable poet for this moment.
Florian Gargaillo is assistant professor at Austin Peay State University, where he teaches modern and contemporary poetry. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in such venues as Modern Language Quarterly, Essays in Criticism, Philological Quarterly, Twentieth-Century Literature, and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. He is currently at work on a book about poetry and political clichés after World War II.