A Review of Arthur Sze’s The Glass Constellation

Tessellation, one critic suggests, is the key term for understanding the work of Arthur Sze.¹ Each poem is a tessellation of juxtaposed scenes and perspectives. Each collection is also a tessellation of these individual poems, often oriented around combinatory figures: Archipelago (1995) as a chain of islands, The Redshifting Web (1998) as our red-tinged perception of receding objects, or the Quipu (2005) as a braided story. And now, we come up against the outermost tessellation in The Glass Constellation, a hefty retrospective selection spanning five hundred pages of poetry across a career of almost fifty years. As Sze states in an interview, the glass constellation is a reference to Indra’s net, “all the poems are like these pieces of glass, reflecting and absorbing the light of every other.”² This overflowing trove presents the evolution of Sze’s writing, tracking the germination of his language and the blooming of his style, the accumulation of his diverse interests and techniques, and his distinctive ebb and flow between the moments of bafflement and of epiphany. The experience of parsing through The Glass Constellation in its entirety left me in a state that was nothing short of astonishment.

Arthur Sze is perhaps the most catholic poet I know. His poetry is—in the deep sense of the term—interdisciplinary, drawing upon physics, natural science, ancient philosophy, anthropology, visual arts, crafts, music. “I want poetry,” Sze states, “to be informed and enriched by what is happening in other disciplines… other disciplines can provide significant metaphors, structures, and challenges by which a poet can layer the poem.”³ Sze’s cultural inventory is just as broad. His ecopoetics are consistently in dialogue with Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Native American traditions, and in Quipu, with Greco-Mediterranean mythologies as well. Charting his literary influences entails an even more formidable task. His taut imagism links itself with classical Chinese poetry and modernists such as Pound, his sudden apostrophes evoke Rilke’s, his vanished speaker is comparable to Szymborska’s, his observational intensity is inherited from Auden and Stevens, his cerebral and self-reflective impulses are suggestive of Ashbery, and with his recent collection Sight Lines (2019), he liberally utilizes Dickinsonian dashes and Heideggerian strikethroughs as the eponymous sight lines. It should be clear that Sze’s poems are difficult objects, even as he holds himself to the highest standard of clarity. This difficulty is not a matter of literariness for its own sake or an intellectualism which has become wearisomely abstract. Poetry, for Sze, is a way of coming to terms with the world, for which the strange feeling of being in this world always outruns our understanding of what it means to be in this world. His poems, in their lush enigma, replicate our lived encounter with the shimmering contours of this life.

Sze’s early poems in The Willow Wind (1972), Two Ravens (1976), and Dazzled (1982) are the ones most tightly rooted in classical Chinese poetry: his lines tend to be brief, and some poems are only a stanza long, conveying a single image. Nearly half of Willow Wind was filled by his Chinese translations, none of which are reproduced in the present collection. These poems, although not representative of the fractal aesthetics with which Sze later became associated, are nonetheless breathtaking. Read, for instance, the title poem of his second collection:

Two Ravens

discussed the weather?
or, perhaps, inquired about spring?

Two ravens, lovers, discussed my death
as I watched.

Within four lines, what had been bemused speculation becomes paralyzing dread, and moreover charged with an erotic energy. The poem reveals how the innocent observation of a pair of birds can mobilize the entire spectrum of human affect. The speaker flits in at the last second only to be immediately excised. In Sze’s later poems, these acts of perspectival cutting are formalized through punctuations, line breaks, and conjunctions.

It is only in his fourth collection River River (1987) that Sze writes his first long-form sequential poem, “The Leaves of a Dream Are the Leaves of an Onion,” and in his fifth collection Archipelago (1995) that this artistic breakthrough becomes more widely recognized, crowned as it were with the 1996 American Book Award. Shortly after, The Redshifting Web (1998) became his first retrospective collection, and it is also the new opening poems of The Redshifting Web which are used to open The Glass Constellation: each new finding but a re-finding, and each new opening but a re-opening. Sze states, “I believe the poetic sequence is the form of our time—mutable, capable of shifting voice as well as location, open to a variety of rhythms and structures.”⁴ Sze begins to view his work as breaking away from classical Chinese poetry in the spirit of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with golden lacquer. Correspondingly, his translations during this period were no longer of the Tang poets but of modernists such as Wen Yiduo whose reversal of the classical tradition, Sze says, “helped me find my own voice.”⁵ In this light, Sze might be regarded as a transpacific mirror of the Misty poets, a revolutionary school in late 70s China—but this connection only becomes more fully realized in his later poems, in which aesthetic subversiveness becomes more explicitly linked with the political concerns of ecological catastrophe and historical atrocity. Even so, the spiritualism of Sze’s poems has always been Whitmanesque in its democratization and radical in its renouncement of power and possession: 

you sense how, in a field guide, it is impossible
to know the growth arc of a mushroom,
but stumble upon shelves of oysters
growing out of dead aspens and
see how nothing in this world is yet yours.

Quipu (2005) marks the heightening of Sze’s fascination with science and mythology, both of which aspire towards a totalizing theory of the world, while always coming up against the brute fact of infinite diversity. Sze writes:

Hang glider, sludge,

pixel, rhinoceros horn, comb, columbarium,
wide-angle, spastic, Leica lens, pincushion

these things have no through-line except that all

things becoming and unbecoming part
of the floe.
                             (“The Angle of Reflection Equals the Angle of Incidence”)

The message recalls his earlier poem “Ice Floe” which schizophrenically catalogues the living sounds in a house during winter as to render the scene somehow two-dimensional, as a metaphysical conception of the world abruptly becomes also an ecological one: the world of life, or at least human life, may be nearing its end. 

Sze’s poems after Quipu, while still deploying juxtaposition and sequence, seem less asymmetrical and more given towards gestures of balance. Whereas Sze had once declared, “One sometimes has to become disoriented in order to reorient and see,” he later expresses, “I think this fluidity has to do with reaching a stage of life that is keenly aware of mortality and transience… to place more attention on continuity and a search for provisional peace, rather than merely highlighting or amplifying breakage.”⁶ But this greater dedication to fluidity and continuity also serves to dramatize the explosiveness of violence when it does manifest. Sight Lines is punctuated throughout with untitled one-line poems of such a nature:

— During the Cultural Revolution, a boy saw his mother shot by a firing squad— 

—A woman detonates when a spam text triggers bombs strapped to her body— 

—A man who built plutonium triggers breeds horses now—  

These one-liners, disrupting the meditative poems which they sit beside, reappear in the penultimate title poem, signifying the convergence of these variable sight lines. To avoid suggesting a sense of completion, however, Sze ends the collection with a different poem, “The Glass Constellation,” which exhibits the consequent dispersal of these sightlines.

The volume ends with Sze’s newest collection White Orchard which preserves this tension between expansion and contraction, fragmentation and cohesion. During the nationalist climate of post-9/11 America, poet Dana Levin had attended one of Sze’s readings and describes her revelation of “the crucial gift his poems offered: immersion, in the ‘shit-smear hair-sway leaf-gold ooze’ of endlessly proliferating life… Sze stood at the lectern in the public library and invoked particulars against the debris.”⁷ The repeated insight of Sze’s poetry is that we will never truly realize how immersed we are in this world. The “endlessly proliferating life” vaunted by Levin has, of course, come back to haunt in this era of Covid-19. Sze must not have been surprised, having presciently observed in a 2019 interview: “We need to pay close, careful attention to find, not superficial resemblances but deep points of connection. And this work is urgent. What we don’t understand today in a remote part of the planet can arrive (say, in the form of a virus) and threaten us all tomorrow.”⁸ The final poems of The Glass Constellation convey this planetary intimacy—both soothing and unnerving, erotic and potentially fatal—which enwraps us all. In his poem “Entanglement,” Sze writes:

When you least expect it, your field
of vision tears, and an underlying landscape
reveals a radiating moment in time.
Today you put aside the newspaper,
soak strawberry plants in a garden bed;
yet, standing on land, you feel the rise
and fall of a float house, how the earth
under your feet is not fixed but moves with the tide. 

¹ Maa, Gerald. “Arthur Sze’s Tesselated [sic] Poems,” A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, edited by Laura McCullough. University of Georgia Press, 2015.
² Levin, Jennifer. “Six Questions with Arthur Sze,” Pasatiempo, 2021. https://www.santafenewmexican.com/pasatiempo/books/six-questions-with-arthur-sze/article_e3986448-9176-11eb-9faf-2f45c7f1e960.html
³ Sze, Arthur, and Liz Countryman. “Breaking Apart the Well-Wrought Object: An Interview with Arthur Sze,” Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature & Fine Arts, vol. 20, no. 2, 2008.
Elshtain, Eric P. “An Interview with Arthur Sze,” Chicago Review, vol. 20, no. 2-4, 2004.
Leuzzi, Tony. “Sight Lines: Arthur Sze with Tony Leuzzi,” The Brooklyn Rail, 2019. https://brooklynrail.org/2019/10/books/ewtdfhdfh
Countryman and Sze, 2008; Leuzzi, 2019.
 Levin, Dana. “‘I am Happiest, Here, Now!’: Arthur Sze’s Poetry of Witness: The Ginkgo Light,” AGNI, 2018.
Leuzzi, 2019.


Sydney To

Sydney Van To is a PhD candidate in UC Berkeley's Department of English and the Deputy Editor at diaCRITICS. His work has been published in Asymptote, Asian Review of Books, and The Chicago Review of Books, among others. He also has a forthcoming chapter on "Refugee Noir" in the Routledge Handbook of Refugee Narratives.

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