Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2019. 80 pages. $16.00.
A team of scientists, primarily from China, recently discovered that one wild silkworm species’ silk, whose threads are made up of tiny nano-fibers, increased in tensile strength when chilled to -196 Celsius, becoming stronger and more flexible despite the cold. Silk’s newfound cryogenic toughness surprised researchers, who now envision multitudes of potential engineering applications in areas—deep ocean, the poles, far-off planets—with extreme conditions. Who could have imagined a simple thread able to bend without breaking? A thread able to bear so much weight.
Sight Lines, Arthur Sze’s lauded tenth collection, has much in common with those amazing threads of Antheraea pernyi. The collection, winner of the 2019 National Book Award, carries Sze’s deep attention to the natural world and its beauties and degradations, alongside personal memory, historical reflection, scientific inquiry, and a philosopher’s wisdom. In these poems, Sze calls upon every sense as vantage points flex between first, second, and third person and between poet and persona in ways that open Sight Lines to multiple narratives and multiple realities. In a collection where time and space collapse together and reform, sometimes mid-line, perspective matters. Sight lines are invisible threads from an observer’s eye to what is being viewed, and Sze’s sight lines can serve as one axis to center this faltering world.
The multi-sectioned poem “Water Calligraphy,” the book’s opening poem, introduces subjects that weave throughout Sight Lines: the act and purpose of writing; the power of fire and water; and, ultimately, questions of human direction and our ephemeral existence. Water calligraphy refers to writing Chinese characters on slate walkways with water, which then evaporate leaving little trace; as Sze describes in the fifth section:
—Sunrise: I fill my rubber bucket with water
and come to this patch of blue-gray sidewalk—
I’ve made a sponge-tipped brush at the end
of a waist-high plastic stick; and, as I dip it,
I know water is my ink, memory my blood—
His persona in this section, a survivor of China’s Red Guards, begins his work at dawn in a present “today,” but is brought back by stanza three to his experiences during the Cultural Revolution, when “I didn’t know whether it was midnight or noon—.” This section’s increasing use of the dash as a means of creating both breath and tension eventually overcomes the language of the poem itself, with the four final stanzas jumping again to the present, where the persona, in water and on the page, strikes out words in an attempt to “block the past” by writing the present. A present where a brush is left to “
swerve rest for a moment,” where the moon, not the “ sun” waxes, and where the persona can “smile, frown” as “—I draw the white, not the black—.” All so we are left, not with the dark permanence of ink and stain, but with the cleansing strokes of water, transient but real.
Formally, the individual sections of “Water Calligraphy” are as varied as the imagery Sze calls upon in his couplets, line-as-stanzas, multi-lined stanzas, and poems as one stanza. Teacups and turtle soup rest on tabletops; fawns graze, ostrich and emu eggs sit in a basket, a coyote crosses the road. Leafing willows, pomegranate and peach trees, wisteria, a fern tip. Arroyo and bosque. Electric saws and construction cranes. Hikers, a blind teen, his mother, a farmer, family and friends. Slender West Lake. The Barrancas. What draws “Water Calligraphy” and its disparate imagery together is an idea that Sze expresses in section six: “If all time converges / as light from stars, all situations reside here.” Thus, Sze’s sight lines are expansive beyond vision to include whole body, whole memory, whole knowledge, whole question. Or, as Sze closes “Water Calligraphy” in its seventh section, “—we fold this / in our pocket and carry it wherever we go.”
The inventiveness of “Water Calligraphy”—and its multisensory, multiverse exploration of infinity bound by a finite lifetime—continues throughout Sight Lines. Formally, Sze uses the dash with intention perhaps unparalleled but for Dickenson herself. When used at the end of single-line stanzas, the dash becomes a horizon to follow, as in the fifth section of “Python Skin”:
a buck scrapes his rack on a slender aspen trunk—
you slow but drive steadily through a hailstorm until it clears—
walkingstick on the screen door—
swimming back to shore, they spot a few turtles in the shallows—
When used internally, as in “Yellow Lightning,” the dashes become threads pulling images into close intimacy that contrast the poem’s use of the colon as a staple or fold, bringing seemingly unconnected images face to face, touching yet distinct:
. . . I pass by it
and exhale: amethyst crystals accrete
on a string: I will live to see pear
blossoms in the orchard, red-winged black-
birds nesting in the cattails; I love the sighs
you make when you let go—my teeth gripping
your earlobe—pearls of air rising through water—
and as a white moon rising over a canyon
casts pine shadows to the ground, gratitude
rivers through me: sharpened to starlight,
I make your bed. . . .
In an act similar to echolocation, Sze sends out images that return—sometimes reverberating within one poem itself, as pistachios, a panda, water, scrolls, and breath do in “Transfigurations,” and sometimes from one poem to another. So, the final line of section three of “Python Skin,” “what if salt or a lichen or the erhu spoke?” has companion prose poems, “Salt Song” and “Lichen Song,” giving those objects voice.
Perhaps most surprising is Sze’s use of stand-alone lines on an otherwise empty page as their own form of a dash connecting various groupings of poems in Sight Lines. The line “—No one could anticipate this distance from Monticello—” connects the preceding poem, “Stilling to North,” and its “parsec / made visible” to the mental and physical distances travelled in the poems that follow the line. “—A woman detonates when a spam text triggers bombs strapped to her body—” gives added weight to its predecessor, “Adamant,” which also grapples with death:
Though death might not come like a curare-
dipped dart blown out of a tube or slam
at you like surf breaking over black lava rock,
it will come—it will come—and it unites us—
brother, sister, boxer, spinner—in this pact. . . .
The line also hints at the disasters of wildfires and assaults, chest pains and griefs that come in the multi-sectioned poem that follows, “Python Skin.” That each of these lines later reappears in the collection’s penultimate, titular poem, “Sight Lines,” at once surprises and seems inevitable, given Sight Lines’ interconnected and recurring imagery and themes. Through this imagistic echolocation, Sze offers readers an unflinching look at mortality, and through its gaze, the act of living fully. As he says at the end of “Sight Lines, “though parallel lines touch in the infinite, the infinite is here—.”