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World Poetry Portfolio #8: Arthur Sze

Arthur Sze is the author of nine books of poetry, including The Ginkgo Light (2009), Quipu (2005), The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (1998), Archipelago (1995), and The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (2001) from Copper Canyon Press. He is also the editor of Chinese Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press, Texas, 2010). A professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he taught for twenty years, Mr. Sze was Poet Laureate of Santa Fe from 2006-2008. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a PEN Southwest Book Award, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, and two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowships. His poems have been translated into Albanian, Burmese, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Portugese, Romanian, Spanish, and Turkish, and he has read his poetry at such international festivals as the XIX International Poetry Festival of Medellín (2009), the Delhi International Literary Festival (2008), the Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival in England (2008), the Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival in China (2007), the Pacific International Poetry Festival (Taiwan, 2008), Poetry International (Rotterdam, 2007), and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival (2002).


After Completion


Mayans charted the motion of Venus across the sky,

poured chocolate into jars and interred them

with the dead. A woman dips three bowls into

hare’s fur glaze, places them in a kiln, anticipates

removing them, red-hot, to a shelf to cool.

When samba melodies have dissipated into air,

when lights wrapped around a willow have vanished,

what pattern of shifting lines leads to Duration?

He encloses a section of garden in wire mesh

so that raccoons cannot strip ears in the dark,

picks cucumbers, moves cantaloupes out of furrows–

the yellow corn tassels before the white.

In this warm room, he slides his tongue along

her nipples, she runs her hair across his face;

they dip in the opaque, iron glaze of the day,

fire each emotion so that it becomes itself;

and, as the locus of the visible shrinks,

waves of red-capped boletes rise beneath conifers.



A sunfish strikes the fly

as soon as

it hits the water;

OOOOOOOOOOthe time of your life

OOOOOOOOOOis the line extending;



OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOshifts in his left eye;

OOOOOOOOOOwhen is joy

OOOOOOOOOOkindling to greater joy?

this nylon filament

is transparent in water

yet blue in air;


OOOOOOOOOOrest in the tall grass.


Perched on a bare branch, a great-horned owl

moves a wing, brushes an ear in the drizzle;

he can’t dispel how it reeks of hunger as he

slams a car door, clicks seat belt, turns

the ignition key. Then he recalls casting

off a stern: he knows a strike, and, reeling in

the green nylon line, the boat turns; and as

a striped bass rises to the surface, he forgets

he is breathing. Once, together, using fifty

irregular yarrow stalks, they generated

a hexagram whose figure was Pushing Upward.

What glimmers as it passes through the sieve

of memory? For a decade they have wandered

in the Barrancas and grazed apache plume.

He weeds so rows of corn may rise in the garden;

he weeds so that when he kisses her eyelids,

when they caress, and she shivers and sighs,

they rivet in their bodies, circumscribe here.





OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOon a cottonwood branch;


OOOOOOOOOOa Trilene knot;

a red dragonfly

nibbles the dangling fly

before he casts;

OOOOOOOOOOwhen he blinks,

OOOOOOOOOOhe recalls their eyelashes;




OOOOOOOOOOthe sky moves

OOOOOOOOOOfrom black to deep blue.



Ravens snatch fledgling peregrine falcons

out of a cliff side, but when they try to raid

a great-horned owls’ nest, the owls swoop,

and ravens erupt into balls of black feathers.

At Chichén Itzá, you do not need to stare

at a rack of skulls before you enter the ball

court to know they scrimmaged for their lives;

when the black rubber ball rebounded off

a hip up through the ring tenoned in the wall,

spectators shrieked, threw off their robes

and fled. The vanquished were tied into balls,

rolled down stone stairs to their deaths.

In one stela, a player lifts a severed head

by the hair, while the decapitated body spurts

six blood snakes. You become a black mirror:

when a woman pulls a barbed cord through

her tongue, when a man mutilates himself

with stingray spines, what vision is earned?



Lifting a tea bowl with a hare’s fur glaze,

he admires the russet that emerges along the rim;

though tea bowls have been named Dusk,

Shameless Woman, Thatch Hut—this nameless one

was a gift. He considers the brevity of what

they hold: the pond, an empty bowl, brims,

shimmers with what is to come. Their minds brim

when they traverse the narrow length of field

to their renovated pond: they have removed

Russian olives, planted slender cinquefoil,

marsh buttercup, blue iris, marsh aster, water

parsnip, riparian primrose, yellow monkey flower,

big blue lobelia, yerba manza; and though it

will be three to five years before the full effect,

several clusters of irises pulled out of mud,

placed on an island, are already in bloom.

A bullfrog dives, a bass darts into deep water

as they approach, while, above, a kingfisher circles.



They catch glimpses of trout in the depths,

spot two yellow ones flickering at a distance.

He thought a teal had drifted to shore,

then discerned it was a decoy. Venus rising

does not signify this world’s end. In the yard,

he collects red leaves from a golden rain tree.

Here is the zigzag path to bliss: six trout align

in the water between aquatic grasses; wasps

nuzzle into an apple; cottonwood leaves drift

on the surface; a polar bear leaps off of ice.

He does not need to spot their looping footprints

to recognize they missed several chances before

finding countless chanterelles in a clearing.

If joy, joy; if regret, regret; if ecstasy, ecstasy.

When they die, they vanish into their words;

they vanish and pinpoint flowers unfolding;

they pinpoint flowers and erupt into light;

they erupt and quicken the living to the living.


Sarangi Music

Black kites with outstretched wings circle overhead—

Sticking out of yellow-tongued flames on a ghat, a left foot—

Near a stopped bus, one kid performs acrobatics while another drums—

Begging near a car window, a girl with a missing arm—

Mynah bird sipping water out of a bronze bowl sprinkled with jasmine petals—

Twitching before he plays a sarangi near the temple entrance, a blind man—

In relief, a naked woman arches back and pulls a thorn out of her raised heel—

Men carry white-wrapped corpses on bamboo stretchers down the steps—

She undresses: a scorpion on her right thigh—

A boy displays a monkey on a leash then smacks it with a stick—

She wrings her hair after stepping out of a bath—

A portion of a leograph visible amid rubble—

A woman averts her gaze from the procession of war elephants—

Two boys at a car window receive red apples—

Sipping masala tea in an inner courtyard with blue-washed walls—

An aura reader jots down the colors of his seven chakras—

A bus hits a motorcycle from behind and runs over the driver and his passenger—

Discussing the price of a miniature elephant on wheels—

Green papayas on a tree by a gate—

Lit candles bobbing downstream into the sinuous darkness—

A naked woman applies kohl to her right eyelid—

The limp tassels of new ashoka leaves in a tomb courtyard—

A cobra rises out of a straw basket before a man plays a bulbous instrument—

Corpses consumed by flames and in all stages of burning—

The elongated tip of a bodhi leaf—

Arranged in a star pattern on a white plate, five dates—

On a balcony, in the darkness, smokers staring at a neem tree—

His head golden, and his sex red—

A naked woman gazing at herself in a small, circular mirror—

At sunrise, a girl rummages through ashes with tongs—

Along the river, men and women scrub clothes on stones.



Ox-head dot, wasp waist, mouse tail,

bamboo section, water-caltrop, broken branch,

stork leg, a pole for carrying fuel:

these are the eight defects when a beginning

calligrapher has no bone to a stroke.

I have no names for what can go wrong:

peeling carrots, a woman collapses

when a tumor in her kidney ruptures;

bronze slivers from a gimbal nut

jam the horizontal stabilizer to a jet,

make it plunge into the Pacific Ocean;

“Hyena!” a man shouts into the darkness

and slams shut the door. Stunned, I hear

a scratching, know that I must fumble,

blunder, mistake, fail; yet, sometimes

in the darkest space is a white fleck,

ox-head dot; and when I pass through,

it’s a spurt of match into flame,

glowing moths loosed into air, air

rippling, roiling the surface of the world.

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