Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus


Arthur Sze, Compass Rose.
Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA, 2014



In a book on D.H. Lawrence's residency in the vicinity of Taos, NM during the 1920s. there is a story about a man who upon breaching the hill before descending into the town, looked around and said,"This is China. This is home." From a geological perspective, what we call China is one node of a planetary ecological system that includes both unique landscapes and those that uncannily reflect others. Not only is the geologic imagination metonymic; although Asian and Amerindian peoples are genetically related, they also share comparative memes rooted in their respective cultures. [Tibetan and Navajo sandpainting, both used for spiritual-healing, is a well-known example.] With an indigenous population whose ceremonials have remained tacitly intact over thousands of years, New Mexico would be an inspired place for Arthur Sze, a second-generation Chinese-American who was born in New York, to make his home.

The sense of a poet’s contribution to the 21st Century includes reanimating academia’s specialized prose and science’s soulless data, correcting the direction of what the West lost around the 18th Century, when science began distancing itself from philosophy; and poetry, which carried scholarship to ears of the commons, began passing through indulgent movements, slowly disappearing from public conversation into what one poet has called a "snooze-inducer."(1)

Arthur Sze’s work is a move toward remedying the cadence of insulated poems and the loss of transdisciplinary imagination. He is as fluid with watering horses as drinking with quantum physicists, as literate in ancient Chinese poetry as with contemporary poetics, with a vision that extends to where "a Yield sign (is) riddled with bulletholes."(2)

In an extensive interview, Sze talked about the Book of Changes, the I Ching, which "has fascinated me for its sense of unfolding time and how, if you consult the oracle, you're in a particular moment in time but it reveals a larger arc." (3) The I Ching dates back to China's Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), with commentaries added during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-221 BCE). In modern times, it was a companion to the psychologist C.G. Jung, who wrote: "An incalculable amount of human effort is directed to combating and restricting the nuisance or danger represented by chance." He went on to use the notion of chance as the basis of his theory of synchronicity. (4) The I Ching was also adopted by avant-garde composer John Cage, to whom it was "a way of allowing nature, the environment, or what Zen would call Mind with a capital M, to respond to his compositional questions."(5)

In the same interview, Sze discussed how he came upon the themes and techniques he used in designing his poetry collections. For example, his idea for Quipu (2005) evolved from the fibrous knots used by the Incas from at least the first millennium CE, as a system of keeping records. Sze says that he it seemed that the so-called "talking knots" were "an appropriate vehicle to work with memory and emotion," "and an opportunity to "consciously work with repeating structures." He also "hoped to make the repetitions not only a form of knotting but also a form of layering."(3) Add to this to his fascination "by how Chinese characters are tenseless and how meaning is created through juxtaposition." "I'm interested," he continued,

"in having all kinds of time simultaneously flow in a poem. I don't want to reduce it too much to the idea that all time is present here, now—but there are complexities of time that are continually intersecting or coming together in one's consciousness, and, if I push that, I can invoke contemporary physics."

Living in the same town as the Santa Fe Institute, which sponsors some of the most creative scientific minds in the world, Sze naturally mentions particle physics, and its string theory. "But maybe," he humorously adds, "that's just a dream or hallucination," The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heracitus; Daoist immortals Laozi and Zhuangzi; too many poets from too many countries to name; along with the landscapes where he lives, and the many places to which he has traveled—are all included in Sze's "chameleon" poetics.


Around 1200 CE, when the ingeniously designed cliff houses of Mesa Verde, in Southwestern Colorado, were occupied by ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, one story tells us that an Italian mariner and inventor named Flavio Gioia refined the compass, which was probably invented in China, substituting a lodestone floating on water or oil with a magnetized needle. On its face was a wind rose, of which the compass rose, designed to orient a navigator along directional lines on a map, is related. The rose is a complex symbol that spans Greek mythology, Christian iconography, and Islamic arabesques. Compass Rose, the title of the book at hand, is also a poem in this book, one among others that, I suggest, serve as kind of disorienting pointers. Sze has said that, "it's often disappointing if I know too soon where a poem is going."(3) Unfortunately, in an age of superficial media and declining levels of education in the Humanities, for the uninitiated reader it is never too soon.
With this in mind, it is not the book's title poem, but its last poem, "The Unfolding Center,"(6) that I hoped would engage the radically emergent consciousness our species needs to survive the challenges of this century. If a poem doesn't provoke us as problematic beings, why read, or listen to, it, except as more superfluous entertainment?

"The Unfolding Center," a poem in eleven sections, begins with "Tea leaves in a black bowl," Like yallow sticks, the relative position of planets, the entrails of animals, etc., the reading of tea leaves, or tasseography, is a means of prophesy. It is also said that a monk named Bodhidharma, along with introducing Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism into China, brought tea with him from India, using it to keep him awake during long periods of meditation. So, with aromatic steam rising from a black bowl, like the Sybil's oracular voice once rose from her abyss, "Nostrils flared, I inhale: / expectancy's a seed— / we planted two rows / of sunflowers then drove to Colorado—"

Sze's landscapes move easily, even eagerly, between being and becoming, and are always circling, like a hawk, or a compass whose direction is contingent upon each moment. He creates his own movement, his own excitement. He is not "On the Road;" rather, he shamanically dissolves time, space, and, when necessary, corporeality:

I saw no carcass, smelled no rot;
           the angers radiating from him
                       like knives in sunlight; I sit

at a river branching off a river:
             three vultures on cottonwood branches
                        track my movement..."

However, the first section of "The Unfolding Center" ends passionately embodied, as "we wake / and embrace, embrace and wake, / my fingers meshed / with your fingers..." After which we are returned to where: "Nostrils flared,

I inhale: time, time
courses through the bowl of my hands."

Physicist Lee Smolin recently wrote: “I’m inclined to believe that just about everything we now think is fundamental will also eventually be understood as approximate and emergent: gravity and the laws of Newton and Einstein that govern it, the laws of quantum mechanics, even space (and time) itself.”(7) Sze's poems get what Smolin is saying.


The third section of "The Unfolding Center" appropriates the trope of placing thoughts "under erasure," or, sous rature, a brilliant move toward meaningful uncertainty introduced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger: "Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible."(8) Later it was recycled by Jacques Derrida, in his discussions on presence and absence, and the multivocal imperative of meaning. "—Damn," (this section begins):

     I'm walking on the roof of hell, I need
a smoke, I'm NOT a procrastinator, this sling

nags me, where's my arm won't budge my lighter?

Real language, W.C. Williams would call this; grouchy language, I say, with the words under erasure scoring the undertow of frustration that comes from a sudden somatic challenge, even if temporary. (I remember the hot, confining sling, worn after shoulder surgery several summers ago.)

I can't sleep, and if I can't sleep. I can't fly fish be—
           I'm going to a lodge near Traverse Bay

where a stream shimmers with cutthroats rainbow trout;
          why, I shrinking inside the body,

let me out, it's fucking paradise here...

These erasures Sze ingeniously uses in two ways. The first to say that, because of climate change, cutthroat trout are giving way to, or cross-breeding with, invasive rainbow trout; and, secondly, to dive inside himself, where he realizes he is free. Like fish in an ocean,"it's fucking paradise in here."

While Sze is unfolding his center, psychologist, Fred J. Hanna, in his important essay, "Dissolving the Center," writes: "Thus, the mind can be transcended through a psychospiritual 'escape hatch,' but the deeper emotional issues and problems will still be there when one returns to ordinary life. This cannot be overemphasized."(9) "We cannot elude ourselves," replies Sze, in the poem's fourth section: "we jump

across state lines where four corners touch,
and nothing happpens. A point is a period,
an intersection, spore, center of a circle,
or—'Where are my honeymoon panties.'
a woman mutters, rummaging in her purse—
the beginning of a vector in any direction."

More than ever, we need poets like Arthur Sze to transplant science's theories and philosophy's speculations to "where bones and teeth are scattered in the grass—;"
poets who can unfold a center without imposing a direction. The poem, along with the book, concludes with a couplet in a Chinese pattern of one stanza inversive of another. It's an ending that says it all:

nothing in sight
          in all directions;
                      a rose flame under our skin,

hummingbird whirling its wings;
          a rose flame,
                      nothing in sight, in all directions:


References and Notes:

1- Simic, C. (2015) "A Book in the Darkness." New York Review of Books. April 28. Earlier, in the same vein, Simic wrote, "When they praised the tribal gods and heroes and glorified their wisdom in war, poets were tolerated, but with the emergence of lyric poetry and the poet's obsession with the self, everything changed. Who wants to hear about lives of nobodies while great empires rise and fall? All that stuff about being in love, smooching, and having to part as the day breaks and the rooster crows is at best laughable." Originally published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 1997.
2- Sze, A. From, "Available Light."
3- Sze, A. (2002) Fact-Simile. (Autumn).
4- Jung, C.G. (1950) Foreword to R. Wilhelm, Translator, The I Ching or the Book of Changes. New York.
5- Schultis, C. (1998) Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition. Boston.
6- The Unfolding Center is also a limited edition book, with drawings by Susan York. Santa Fe, 2014.
7- Smolin, L. (2013) Time Reborn. New York.
8- Heidegger, M. (1956) Letter to Ernst Jünger
:"Zur Seinsfrage. (The Question of Being)."
9- Hanna, F. J. (2000) "Dissolving the Center." In, T. Hart, P.l. Nelson, K. Puhakka, Editors, Transpersonal Knowing." Albany, NY.