The Ginkgo Light
by Arthur Sze
A review by Maryanne Hannan
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 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: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
Thirteen Death and One Deer are Mesoamerican cultural references to particular days, replicating the movement of regeneration from corpse to living, continuing to echo the I Ching. On the other hand, however, while you might not have to fly there to experience it, you do have to name it. Herein lies the energy that drives these poems: the function of the imagination, the role of the poet/seer to name. Yet these poems are far from a panegyric to the power of poetry, or its efficacy. "The naming of a day will not transform it," he writes in "Chrysalis," "nor will the mathematics of time halt" (p. 8). In "Looking Back on the Muckleshoot Reservation from Galisteo Street, Santa Fe" (p. 14), he acknowledges, "Your small / acts are sandpiper tracks in wet sand." In "Pig's Heaven Inn" (p. 15), "we form a rivulet of people / funneling down through a chasm in the granite." In "Qualia" (p. 19), a lyric about his daughter, with its certain time, place and narrative cohesiveness, he tags imagination's unpredictability, "no chart can predict / how imagination unfolds, endlessly branching." The final line acknowledges that change is not always what we would call for the better, "what is shed and slithering into pellucid air." Good or bad becomes irrelevant. We live change:
The pieces of a life stay pieces
at the end; no one restores papyrus
once it has erupted into flame;
but before agapanthus blooms,
before the body scorches, razes
consciousness, you have time
to puzzle, sway, lurch, binge,
skip, doodle, whine, incandesce.
-- "The Gift," p. 13
This is not carpe diem, as we have come to know it, seeking relief from the burden of time through denial, momentary pleasure. Sze is talking about bringing consciousness, imagination to bear upon mortality: "to recoil from darkness is to feed the darkness, / to suffer in time - dichotomous venation -- / to effloresce the time" from "The Gingko Light." And my romantic-lyrical favorite, from "After Completion," with its simpler diction and poetic delicacies:
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.
-- p. 61
Poetry grounds us, amidst the flux, as I understand these poems. Curiously, despite the compelling images and disjunctive mode of composition, I sometimes resisted the unduly placid surfaces of the poems and the cool, almost aloof tone. How to account for this impression, in the midst of the compelling images and the disruptive mode of composition, cultural demise so often adjacent to domestic tranquility, the air-pollution expert deliberating dirty bombs and the neighbor sharing organic lettuce in "Departures and Arrivals" (p. 53), to name but one example? Yes, there is the highly crafted, polished surface of the poems, form that belies content, but given the variety in the long poems, this does not account for my impression. Probably the tone arises from Sze's unique cultural viewpoint. He challenges readers to keep an open mind, to lay aside Western preconceptions. Again from "The Spectral Line," "When you are still, / you spot the chance tracks of the living." But also, he requires readers not to clutch onto Eastern modes, as they are never still for long in these poems.
I also believe that the tone arises from the cerebral nature of the poems, the primarily non-autobiographical "I," which emerges despite many autobiographical details, and the implicit call on the reader not so much to feel, but to see, to really see, and to think. Without an intellectual grasp of Sze's references, much is lost. At times, I became that tourist running through the streets of Bruges with but a passing knowledge of the Middle Ages. For instance, "Tesserae" (p. 17) begins with the narrator on a ladder in his yard picking plums. From that specific center, the poem extends in and out of time and place, his childhood, the "Life photograph / of bodies piled up in Nanjing," black ants on the walkway, then later on the deck where "hours earlier / we lay naked." The poem then concludes with his lover's fortune cookie, "Water runs to what is wet." No amount of puzzling out this image, in terms of the poem, or even the other poems of the book, helped. Later, I read Sze's essay "On Poetry and Water," at the Poetry Foundation website: "In China, water is one of the five elements and symbolizes yin, the primeval female principle. In the I Ching, or Book of Changes, (...) water is not an assemblage but, rather, a force -- 'Water flows to what is wet.' The water trigram helps to highlight that everything is in motion, and that each moment is unique." Aha! Sze then points out the subtle difference between this understanding and the Heraclitean dictum, "You cannot step twice in the same river," a discussion that adds considerably to the nuances of the poems.
A final quibble: Sometimes, odd, to my ear, word choice contributed to the aura of emotional remoteness -- ponder and meander occurring more than once, ruminate, plethora, the frequent use of verbs with inceptive suffix (incandesce, coalesce, effloresce, effervesce). These are diction attempts to name, to give life to an evanescent state of mind, but for me, they did not always resonate as intended.
The deficits I experienced in reading these poems are clearly mine as a reader; nevertheless, it is worth mentioning to prospective readers that Sze's spirited vision, as a poet and a thinker, puts certain demands on the reader. As with any worthwhile destination, though, remaining with the poems for longer than a brief perusal yields increased understanding and pleasure. I can honestly say that every time I read them, something new quickens my interest.
Maryanne Hannan's poems, reviews and essays have appeared in many literary journals, including Eclipse, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Pebble Lake Review, Poet Lore, upstreet, and Stand. A contributing editor for Cerise Press, she lives in upstate New York.
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.
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The Spring 2011, Vol. 2 Issue 6 of Cerise Press features Smoking, Chongqing, a photograph by Steven Benson.