Circumscribing Here: The Ginkgo Light by Arthur Sze

The Ginko Light

The Ginkgo Light
BY Arthur Sze
(Copper Canyon Press, 2009)

Fifty years before the publication of Arthur Sze’s The Ginkgo Light, a Hollywood movie, If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium, satirized a group of tourists rushing through Europe with neither depth nor perception. Sze, a second-generation Chinese-American poet and translator with ten books to his credit, the recipient of numerous major literary prizes, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, is thoughtful, erudite, the antithesis of shallow; reading his poetry, I sometimes felt like one of those frazzled tourists. I wanted a guidebook or at least a toehold purchase of his company.

The Ginkgo Light is an ambitious work. The first word, “corpses” (p. 5), taken from the long opening poem, “Chrysalis” with its come-hither hint of transformation, finds its complement in “living,” the book’s last word, from “After Completion” (p. 9), a reference to the second last hexagram of the I Ching. In between, “each hour teems,” from the eponymous poem, “The Ginkgo Light” (p. 20). As in the I Ching, whose final hexagram is “Before Completion,” the poems suggest a circle, accessible at any given point. It is not the circle, though, but the teeming inside the circle that matters, as well as the poet’s ability to observe, ponder, imagine.

With dizzying agility, Sze quick-cuts personal references with the philosophical, nature with historical events, narrative with lyrical, list poems with elegy, and every now and then there is a gnomic statement…

With dizzying agility, Sze quick-cuts personal references with the philosophical, nature with historical events, narrative with lyrical, list poems with elegy, and every now and then there is a gnomic statement that may or may not be undercut elsewhere. Mere polarities are not enough: Eastern with Western philosophy prove an insufficient dichotomy. He draws widely from Native American cultures; for instance, the incantatory list of tribal names comprising the exact center section of his long poem, “The Spectral Line,” seems to be the center of the book.

Very little is accidental in the poetry, yet the world, especially the personal trajectory of vision and experience, is quintessentially accidental: juxtaposition, then, is the primary rhetorical strategy. “We savor black beans / with cilantro and rice, pinot noir,” while

…someone shovels snow in a driveway,
collapses, and hospitalized, catches staph
infection; out of airplane wreckage, a woman
identifies the ring on the charred corpse
of her spouse; a travel writer whose wife is in
hospice gazes at a lunar eclipse..
A 1300-year-old lotus seed germinates…

— “The Ginkgo Light,” p. 20

In life’s fecund multiplicity, in a poetry where images accumulate on their way to metaphor, what is it to be human? In “Double Helix,” Sze characteristically piles up the images and then observes:

Although the passions that torrent through
our bodies will one day vanish like smoke —

these words spiral the helix of living into smoke —
we embrace, rivet, inflame to mortal beauty,

to yellow-gold bursting through cottonwoods…
(…)
we observe snow on a flagstone path dissolve.

— “Double Helix,” pp. 47-48

Our role as witness is important. Surprisingly, we can witness without being physically present. Referring to a total solar eclipse, he speculates:

You did not have to fly to Zimbabwe in June 2001
to experience it. The day recalls Thirteen Death

and One Deer when an end slips into a beginning.
I recall mating butterflies…

— “Chrysalis,” p. 8

Page 1 of 2 1 2 View All

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/02/05/circumscribing-here-the-ginkgo-light-by-arthur-sze

Page 1 of 2 was printed. Select View All pagination to print all pages.