The Redshifting Web
Copper Canyon Press
ARTHUR SZE KNOWS that the essence of surrealism is juxtaposition--arranging images to create new shapes in the reader's imagination. At the center of The Redshifting Web, a collection of Sze's poems taken from the past 28 years, is a yearning to make musical logic and magic out of apparent non sequiturs. In "The Pulse," from 1987, Sze describes a hysterical woman writing letters to God in the psychiatric ward. In one stanza Sze mentions her botanical inquiry regarding the growth of chiasma roots and, a few lines later, a philosophical question about the "visual cortex" of the brain. And a few lines after this, the unnamed narrator offers a plainspoken description of his walk down an arroyo lined with old tires and broken glass.
Such flights are the modus operandi of most any surrealist. What distinguishes Sze is his brevity ("The Pulse" is composed of 18 terse lines), the sweep and detail of his subject matter (he is fluent in the realms of medicine, art, nature, philosophy, and common sense), and, most of all, his tone.
A second-generation Chinese American born in New York City 48 years ago, Sze honors both the Eastern and Western elements of his cultural identity through provocative introspection--a thirst for knowledge and love of language attached to a clinical mode of inquiry. Some of Sze's most profound lines are capped with a question mark: "Is the continuum of a moment a red/poppy blooming by a fence, or is it/a woman undergoing radiation treatment/who stretches out on a bed to rest/and senses she is stretching out to die?" he writes in a new poem, "Before Completion."
That poem's reference to a hexagram from The I Ching, an ancient Chinese "book of changes," perhaps reflects another facet of Sze's artistic temperament, a desire to associate himself more with ancient wisdom than contemporary smarts. Many of the poems here exhibit the sparse, elegant brushstrokes of a Chinese painting. "A hummingbird alights on a lilac branch/and stills the mind. A million monarchs/may die in a frost? I follow the wave/of blooming in the yard..." Sze writes in "The String Diamond."
Ultimately, the power of Sze's poetry lies in his determination not to choose--nor even necessarily reconcile--his cultural duality. As he writes in "The Leaves of a Dream Are the Leaves of an Onion": "Crush an apple, crush a possibility./No single method can describe the world;/therein is the pleasure/of chaos, of leaps in the mind."