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One Poet Goes Against The Grain Of Confessionalism's Egocentrism.

By David Penn

AUGUST 10, 1998: 

The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, by Arthur Sze (Copper Canyon Press). Paper, $17.

WHEN POETRY strikes us as insufficient, it's often because once we've navigated the dense, lurid and/or luminous terrain, after we've penetrated the zip-bang, hip intellectual irony (of everything but the zip-bang, hip intellectual irony itself), we discover the poem is little more than a path to meager profundity--a sober "aw shucks" in the face of some "hard but true" aspect of emotional life.

This is in part an aspect of a Western culture that prefers a world of zero tolerance and "affirmations" over a universe of personal insight. In part, this is the legacy of modern poetry's confessionalist counter-revolution of Lowell, Sexton and Plath almost a half-century ago.

But this terrain is also the province of poets whose work never rises above the minor miracle of its own self-expression: the infatuation with the power of creative language to project, combined with an ego insatiably trying to articulate itself as something distinct, worthy of mercy and sympathy.

The best of the poetry of Arthur Sze--nearly 30 years of which has been collected by Copper Canyon Press in The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998--goes against the grain of confessionalism's egocentrism. Against the tendency to limit expression to the small valve of the ego or the merely political self, Sze's poems strike with imagination and a thoroughly integrative aesthetic eye preoccupied, as the critic-poet Clayton Eshleman suggests, "with all the poet knows about himself and his world."

This approach to poetics has earned Sze's poetics the label "visionary"--a term which often conjures images of titanic, Blakean hallucinations. But this interpretation of visionary poetics--with its emphasis on prophetic vision in particular--is a limited one, with fairly specific allegiances back to the writings of St. Augustine (the original Christian visionary poet) to the ecstatic delirium of Ezekiel.

Yet what is visionary about visionary poetry isn't distance and prophecy, as much of the millennialist zeal ranging from The X Files to Damascus Gate tends to suggest. Sze's poems are visionary in much the same way that the debauched articulations of Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations are visionary: Sze revels less in the scatological seam of humanity (the revelation, for example, that our animal nature is largely reproductive and excretory, which has paralyzed poets from Verlaine to Eshleman). The best poems in The Redshifting Web sustain what Buddhist translators and Western philosophers have referred to as the inherent "thingness" of all phenomena: physical, spiritual, psychological. And further, the suggest that the true function of the poetic mind is to articulate this inviolability, this sacredness of object and experience in itself, for itself. In "Before Completion," Sze writes:

Tiger lilies are budding in pots in the patio;
daikon is growing deep in the garden.
I see a bewildered man ask for direction,
and a daikon picker points the way with a daikon."

Often in Sze's poetry, a sense of eternal return predominates; a "re-articulation" in which essence is communicated again and again through the temporal intermediaries of thought, body and experience, with images and themes curling back toward some intimation of the original--as when the "red dragonflies" "mating above the cattails" "sipping lichen tea, eating fried scallion pancakes" greeting the reader near the beginning of the poem "Archipelago" are one in the same "dancers...throwing licorice, sunflower seeds, pot scrubbers, aprons, plastic bowls" as part of a richly evocative summer landscape.

Sze is Director of the Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. The Institute, founded in 1962 during a glasnost in U.S. Federal Government/Indigenous American relations, is the only higher-education institution in the world dedicated to the practice of the artistic traditions of all indigenous Americans. Sze's poems are full of the cultural resonance of indigenous America, and his own Asian heritage as second-generation Chinese: Third Mesa and Lama temple, morning glories and chrysanthemums.

The Redshifting Web takes readers through 20 years of Sze's poems, from lyrics styled in the meek sentimentalism of the '70s in small gems like "North to Taos," with its "minnows scatter/at your step/the boat is moored to sky," toward greater narrative, storytelling purpose, as in the poems of Dazzled (1982). However, the most recent poems--the poems of Archipelago and the section "New Poems"--remain the most luminous of the collection. In poems such as "Oolong," ("You pass someone bowing talking on the telephone/and the shock is an incandescent quark/leaving a spiraling track in the mind") where randomness is nothing more than a conceit of true awareness, and vision the reward of being alive.

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