I have a habit, when reading a good book of poetry, of looking for the places where the poet seems to be reflecting on his or her own sense of what poetry is. Arthur Sze, one of my favorite poets, writes, “If I sprinkle iron filings onto a sheet / / of paper, I make visible the magnetic lines / of the moment.” That’s one way to understand what he does in his new book, Compass Rose: as a sort of secular divination through poems made of small particles of sense, yet in which the poetry of the poems (if you know what I mean) is not made of those particles but of the hidden forces that organize the patterns formed by these disparate particulars that are the poems. And yet Sze also holds that “to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole.” That is, the fragments—the “iron filings”—are after all not merely a vehicle for making otherwise invisible formations discernible; each is somehow also an autonomous whole with its own inherent value. There are fragments and there is a whole but there is no evident mediation between them—no narrative, no discourse to account for the relation, only the intuition that it is so. It is the burden of Sze’s poetry to make the reader feel this antinomy vividly while also feeling that, line by line or rather statement by statement—for this is a poetry of statements—the contradiction is being resolved, that (like a Leibnizian monad) “each hanging jewel absorbs and reflects / every other.”
As should be clear from what I have quoted so far, Sze’s fragments are not the “simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction” that Kenneth Rexroth discerned in the poems of Pierre Reverdy, but they are also more self-contained than the “narrative or at least informative wholes” used, in Rexroth’s account, by Apollinaire and the main line of European and American modernists who followed him (Pound, Eliot…). But Sze’s poetics does share with Reverdy’s what Rexroth describes as the imperative to convey “an invisible or subliminal discourse which owes its cogency to its own strict, complex and secret logic.” And this is despite the fact that the fragments out of which Sze constructs his poetry can be syntactically and also semantically denser and more elaborate than those of Apollinaire et al. Because they are topically far removed from one another, conjuring no unifying scene or theme or individual consciousness (previous to the activity of reading itself) through which they can be synthesized, their relation or nonrelation is not simply that of parataxis; rather they become a kind of implicit syntactic catachresis, as if ideas were not simply succeeding each other but rather constantly substituting one for another. War, love, eating, the indifferent processes of the natural world, the banality of consumer culture, spiritual longing, historical memory commingle. The scope of this poetry is Whitmanesque in its inclusiveness, though its rhetorical modesty is anything but Whitmanesque.
One result of Sze’s mosaic-like accretion of statements is that it renders succession and simultaneity indistinguishable. This emerges most patently when two incommensurable forms of awareness are combined in a single statement—for instance, “While we slept, a truck filled / with plutonium rumbled down the highway.” How do “we” know about the truck if we were sleeping, and how do we know its contents? There are two distinct forms of knowledge involved here and their meeting in a single statement is inherently unstable. More often, Sze creates this effect across longer segments by eschewing or at least subordinating the seeming temporal coordination of this “while,” although we still read the word in terms of simultaneity, as in this passage from “The Curvature of the Earth”:
Soldiers fire mortars at enemy bunkers,
while Afghan farmers pause then resume
slicing poppy bulbs and draining resin.
A caretaker checks on his clients’ lawns
and swimming pools. The army calls—
he swerves a golf cart into a ditch—
the surf slams against black lava rock,
against black lava rock—and a welt
spreads across his face. Hunting for
a single glow-in-the-dark jigsaw piece,
we find incompletion a spark.
We volley an orange Ping-Pong ball
back and forth: hungers and fears
spiral through us, forming a filament
by which we heat into cesium light.
In this case we begin with the explicitly stated simultaneity of the soldiers pursuing their war aims while the farmers continue their work in the opium economy. The line and a half about the caretaker continues the theme of work but in a place unspecified—it might be an American suburb but for all intents and purposes could be anywhere in the world where some portion of the population can afford to maintain a lawn and a pool and hire others to do the work. Likewise the implication, thanks to the continuing use of the present tense, is that this scene of suburban banality is simultaneous with that of war and indifference in Afghanistan, but it need not be so and there is no narrative upshot if it is. The sentence that follows, broken up by multiple dashes, seems to have several different scenes and events smashed into it, a kind of mise-en-abyme of the poem as a whole; and this one is followed in turn by one of those that, as I’ve said, always attracts my particular attention, a statement whose objective description of a concrete situation also provides a potential allegorization for the process of writing or reading the poem in which it occurs—although as I hope quoting it in its larger context shows that this is only implicit, and not given any emphasis in the text itself. It is up to the reader to pick up on this suggestion, should he or she find it opportune, or silently let it drop: but in this poetry, as far as I’m concerned, incompletion really is a spark. The generally crisp, undemonstrative tone of the writing keeps any editorializing mood music at bay. This is especially important because Sze reports subjective thoughts, feelings, sensations, and reactions as facts on the same order as objective happenings in the world. Though Sze sometimes uses as Williams-esque three-line stanza, his is not a poetics of “no ideas but in things” (and of course Williams rarely adhered strictly to that dictum either). A thing you can stub your toe on and the pain it causes are absolutely equal. The mind and heart are just as real to this poetry as anything else.
In fact, equality of emphasis is an essential to this poetry. In that, it turns out to have a surprising kinship with an oeuvre as seemingly different as that of Ron Silliman—but a Language classic like Silliman’s Ketjak is likewise founded on the equality of attention demanded by each of its sentences. That’s why it’s a little disappointing when Sze gives in to the temptation, as he very occasionally does, of ending a poem with something that suggests a gesture toward the epiphanic (“now mortality’s / a wave, a trampoline into light”); no one perception should in itself claim to offer a key to all the rest, though each can be “absorbed and reflected” in any of the others. (My fascination with those moments in which the poem can be seen to describe itself can only be justified to the extent that these suggest a method of reading or writing and not the content or significance of the poem.) Such poems demand endings without conclusion—which Sze conveys most overtly by ending the last poem in Compass Rose with a colon rather than a full stop. He also broaches, however gingerly, an undoing of the putative unity of the individual poem by scattering the thirty-one lines of one of them—whose title, “Sarangi Music,” is only revealed in the Acknowledgments, not blazoned at the poem’s head—across eight pages throughout the book as a set of interludes between the other pieces. There is great potential in the more thoroughgoing use of this device; just as each of Sze’s poems is a mesh of discrete units of thought or perception, a whole book could become a mesh of such poems. Even in his early sixties, Sze seems to be at the beginning of an ever more far-reaching exploration.
Arthur Sze’s Compass Rose (2014) is published by Copper Canyon Press.