The universe, in its expansions and contractions, seems wholly contained in The Glass Constellation, Arthur Sze’s eleventh collection of poetry, which gathers, along with his newest poems, the entirety of his previous ten books. Yet Sze’s poetry, as a poetry of paradox, is the opposite of containment—it is, as the universe is, an ever-expanding web. “In the circumference / of a circle the beginning and end have no end,” writes the poet, and I hear in this an address to the circularity that is essential to Sze’s poetic forms: forms that simultaneously hold, reflect, and expand.
Arthur Sze started writing poetry while attending MIT to become a scientist. While he has called himself a “science drop out,” this way of seeing and thinking about the world permeates his poetry. I was lucky to be a student of Sze’s at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, where he was a professor for twenty-two years, and physics and astronomy were often a part of our poetry lessons. Thinking about black holes or white dwarfs was exactly the kind of mind-bending that got us into the space—the energy field—of a poem. Some of the most powerful teachings he imparted to us revealed poetry as a way of seeing the visible world and the invisible worlds at once.
It is appropriate, then, that The Glass Constellation opens with the line, “I gaze through a telescope at the Orion Nebula / . . . / needle and pinpoint lights stream into my eyes.” We begin our journey by gazing at the stars and contemplating the nature of visible light, which, like all waves, transports energy as it travels. When these waves interact with a boundary, they are either absorbed, transmitted, or reflected. In “Before Completion,” the opening poem, we sense the absorption, transmission, and reflection of light that happens in the mind-eye of the poet.
“Before Completion” introduces some of Sze’s essential philosophical and poetic concerns. Transformation is one key theme throughout all of Sze’s poems, and it is introduced here by its Chinese character: “As the character, yi, change, is derived / from the skin of a chameleon, we are / living the briefest hues on the skin / of the world.” The mutability of image and language are also crucial concepts in Sze’s poetics. Sze would often demonstrate in our poetry classes how Chinese language is constructed, tracing the images that form many of the characters. The building blocks of many characters are images that, when juxtaposed, transform into a meaningful word: “he dips his brush / and writes the character flower incorporating the character mind.” Seeing the formation of these characters helped us see another way into poetry-making.
Many of Sze’s poems are built from juxtaposing unlike moments; an experience or image will flash on and into something else: “The first leaves on an apricot, a new moon, / a woman in a wheelchair smoking in a patio, / a CAT scan of a brain: these are the beginnings / of strings.” Making fluid transformations among image, language, and perception, even when these convergences are jagged or contrasting, can be understood as part of Sze’s ideology, which draws from the Taoist practice of non-attachment and, among others, an ecopoetic practice of interconnectivity and the encompassment of diversity in nature, culture, and peoples.
“Before Completion” takes us to China and New Mexico, two sites we will return to consistently throughout Sze’s books, which span cultures, landscapes, and political and natural histories, from Kyoto to Chaco Canyon to Edna Bay, from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to the Long Walk to Hiroshima. We will learn, from this opening poem onward, that place, space, time—human, animal, plant, and star life—are all equal in the field of the poem. In the poetic worlds of Arthur Sze, no one person or thing takes precedence over another; there is no hierarchy in what is seen or experienced. “Consciousness is an infinite net / in which each hanging jewel absorbs and reflects / every other.” How events, images, and experiences reflect and transform each other by their synchronicity is fundamental to Sze’s circular poetics.
The motion of Sze’s poems is a continuous, circuitous sweep between the microscopic to the expansive, from the first-person perspective—the “I”/“eye”—of the poet. This sweep, in its restlessness, still holds its balance at this tipping point. It knows that to channel desire into an exacting articulation risks changing the frequency of that desire. This is the paradox of language: the space in between the this and the that—between the before and after of completion—is where Sze’s poems effloresce, illuminating lines of sight. “And as a lantern undulating on the surface / of a black pool is not the lantern itself, / so these synapsed words are not the things / themselves but, sizzling, point the way.”
Poetry as divination, another key theme, is introduced in “Before Completion” through references to the I Ching. Translated typically as the Book of Changes, the I Ching is one of the oldest Chinese texts, originally a manual for divination. The hexagram is an aspect of I Ching, involving six horizontal lines, either broken or unbroken, and stacked, to create an archetype. “Before Completion,” a poem in six sections, is also the name of the last of the sixty-four possible hexagrams; that it opens this expansive collection is one of the book’s many spell-weaving gestures.
“Before Completion” is also the first poem in The Redshifting Web, Sze’s last “new and collected,” released in 1998, which contained his previous books: The Willow Wind (1972), Two Ravens (1976), Dazzled (1982), River River (1987), and Archipelago (1995). The Redshifting Web seems to mark a center-point in Sze’s trajectory, and in tune with the circular nature of his poetics, it is appropriate to begin the collection in the middle. These poems cast lines we will find threaded throughout Sze’s oeuvre.
Beginning The Glass Constellation here allows us to notice the shift in Sze’s poetics from his first book to The Redshifting Web. His first two books are contemplative minimalist lyrics, many of them homages to Chinese traditions and poets, many engagements with narrative or epiphany. What we see in these early books is the emerging exploration of perception. In “The Taoist Painter,” we watch the painter who is watching his painting: he “paints the leaves in the upswing / of the wind” while “the sunlight moving in patches / obscures and clarifies his view.” We are inside his mind and insight, and simultaneously outside, out of sight.
Sze’s third collection, Dazzled, opens with a poem about discernment, about “perusing / the photographs in the mind’s eye.” The convergence of images becomes a way to “find, as in a sapphire, / a clear light, a clear emerging / view of the world.” Throughout Dazzled, we see the poems looking for correlations, studying how “The mind magnetizes / everything it touches.” Poems like “The Cloud Chamber” seek understanding of human decisions (a woman rejecting chemotherapy) through nature (a wasp nest, a pi-meson in a cloud chamber). The poet wants to comprehend but is struck by the awe of not-knowing, as in “Black Lightning,” where the poet is guessing at lines of braille, guesses answered only by the feeling of “the nerves of [his] hand flashing / in the dark.”
As a collection, River River flows from the crisis of mind—and the physics—pointed to in Dazzled: the paradox that “the visual cortex of the brain / confines your worldview even as you / try to enlarge it.” This parallax—the fact that an object’s position appears different when viewed along different sight lines—impels the poems’ persisting questions, their restless desire to see and show many angles at once.
From River River onwards, juxtaposition and layering of fragments become a method and a mode of Sze’s poetics, a way to notice. The poems become unrelenting in their population of sensory glimpses; they undulate with series of images and questions, each connecting to the next, equitably and seamlessly, despite the distance of these leaps: “I note the creaking cottonwood branch overhead; // moon below Venus in morning twilight; in our arms / one season effloresces into another and another. // The polar ice caps of Mars advance and retreat.”
We also notice how the juxtapositions seek not just comparison, but synchronicity, to make “algae under an electron microscope / resemble a Magellanic Cloud.” The vast and the small become close enough in gesture that we can experience these two phenomena simultaneously, as in the poem “Kaiseki”: “he . . . senses a shift // in starlight, the Horsehead Nebula, and, in the dark, / her eyelashes closing and opening on his skin.” Not only do we see the vast and the very small in each other, but we experience two sensations synesthetically: the dramatic light of the galaxy, a soft touch on the skin.
We see in River River the emerging need for a different kind of poetic, one that does not seek to explain existence, but instead to encircle paradox. Paradox doesn’t lead to answers or a culminating moral and doesn’t hold apotheosis as part of a poem’s structural gesture; it holds simultaneity and transformation, not only in what is being included or described in the poem, but in the poem’s architecture.
Archipelago takes up this poetic, with densely textured serial poems that abandon resting at any one “point of coincidence” but instead strive to embrace the unknown by becoming absorbed in untrackable transformations. In Archipelago’s opening poem, “Streamers,” Sze writes:
When I know I am no longer trying to know the spectral lines
of the earth, I can point to a cuttlefish and say,
“Here it is sepia,” already it is deep-brown,
and exult, “Here it is deep-brown,” already it is white.
The cuttlefish also appears in The Redshifting Web: “I absorb the stench of burning cuttlefish bone / and as moments coalesce see to travel far is to return.” Coalescence can be one way of describing Sze’s poetics. Yet, while the poems travel toward coalescence, fusion, they simultaneously return to the particular, illuminating each strand, leaf-edge, spark of butterfly wing: “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.”
Often in my reading of these poems, I feel like I’m watching a series of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth or The Blue Planet—cinematically, scientifically, and sensorially rich documentaries. “String Diamond,” for example, is a litany of natural wonders: “black lace cactus / water goby / slender-horned spineflower,” and we are invited to immerse ourselves in this sonorous diversity of life, the ecstatic joy of names and forms. In Ginkgo Light we are offered another list of names, this time a list of forty Native Nations, from Acoma Pueblo to Inupiat, another celebration of diversity. As a teacher at IAIA, Arthur taught students from several hundred Native Nations; he has always held the diversity and uniqueness of our many cultures with high respect.
In class, Arthur would often ask us where we felt the “heat” in the poem: if we hovered our palm over the page, where could we feel the heat radiating? In the poem-mind, this makes perfect sense—the heat intensifies as the poem’s images and sounds spiral and knot. In wave dynamics, the poem is hottest when the amplitude and frequency is highest. Can an image affect frequency? Can one thought alter the way a given wave travels? The mind zig-zags, Sze says, it “shifts as the world shifts. /. . . / The world shifts as the mind shifts.” The mind, he writes, “is a tuning fork that we strike, and, struck, in the syzygy / of a moment, we find the skewed, tangled / passions of a day begin to straighten, align, hum.” There is harmony—tuning—in the looping mind, one that notices, glances, turns, senses, ponders—all operative verbs in Sze’s poems.
From the 1982 collection Dazzled, where the poem “Frost” is arranged by the anaphora “Notice,” we are taught that reading his poems is an invitation to notice, not to interpret. In the mind, “that swivels into this” as we ask for understanding of our human abstractions: “Desire is to memory as an azalea is to a stone?” The question mark is the answer, because it opens another door, another thought, another image: “Is sun to earth to moon / as mind to shitake to knife? When one mind / passes to another, green dragonflies hover over water.” It is the tipping point of possibility, where realization is the breath that blows apart that fine web, which holds the jeweled droplets of dew.
The Redshifting Web feels central to Sze’s trajectory as a poet, as it is a collection that has fully inhabited the architectures, the circular poetics, introduced in Archipelago: serial poems with several consistent forms braided through, creating a balanced field where all things vibrate in equal relationship.
From The Redshifting Web through the books that follow—Quipu (2005), The Ginkgo Light (2009), Compass Rose (2014), Sight Lines (2019), and the new poems of The White Orchard, we are enraptured by the rivers of poems that have found their forms for flowering, for igniting into the miraculous. We are compelled to note not just the illuminations created by juxtapositions and weavings, but the architectures of the poems themselves.
The serial poems in Quipu and thereafter appear in intricate, purposeful structures. You can see and hear the repetition of forms: tiered poems in triadic stanzas; serial poems that unfold as eighteen or twenty-one lines, in monostichs, couplets, triplets, and single-stanza blocks. Space becomes as important as the line, with strings of long lines, reminiscent of I Ching hexagrams, either stacked, hovering in solitude over the white expanse, or marked by em-dashes as points of connection. It is thrilling to read Sight Lines, where poems comprised of a single line alone on a page are interspersed with long, fuller poems, and then arrive at the titular poem, where all these seemingly randomized and solitary lines converge: the ringing of these lines in repetition become a singing bowl, radiating sound, as how “a string of notes riffles the water.”
The form of the poem “The Glass Constellation” is also worth noting, as its tightness controls the poem’s heightened frequency—a 191-line poem of six sentences, comprised of an alternating series of monostichs and couplets. The strictness of this form holds the poem’s wild shifts, and like all of Sze’s poems, creates a seamless tapestry.
Sze is a genius at maintaining clean grammatical shifts in time and place, like a figure-skater spinning through perfect landings and arcs, a singular motion stroke making a figure on ice and blade, or a water calligrapher, who, according to Sze’s endnotes, “at sunrise . . . dips brushes in water, and writes calligraphy on the slate walkways. As the water evaporates, the characters disappear.”
The characters, images, and moments through all of Sze’s poems never fully disappear from the field, but submerge, transform, transfigure, vanish from one particular view only to return to another portal, as with the magpie in “Sprang”: “each word, a talisman, / leaves a track: a magpie / struts across a portal // and vanishes from sight.”
While Sze’s series of scenes in the books that follow The Redshifting Web are carefully arranged through lines, couplets, stanzas, and serial forms, we sense we are always in multiple places or moments at once. Simultaneity is the ambition of these poems. “Here skid marks on I-25 mark a head-on collision; / here I folded an origami crane.” Among all of these moments, not one is more significant than the other: each “is the origin of starlight.”
The newest collection, The White Orchard, glimmers, dream-like, at the comet-tail end of the book. When I arrive here, I feel as if I am standing before the petroglyphs of Le Cieniguilla’s basalt cliffs: “Staring / at a lightning petroglyph, you mark // the zigzag beauty of danger.” I flash back to the black lightning the poet in Dazzled felt in the nerves of his hand when guessing at the meaning of the blind girl’s lines of braille.
The beauty, and danger, of The White Orchard is that it collapses time and space: “Now we are X,” writes the poet, who has become a master at simultaneity in the way one becomes a master at any ancient art: textile dyeing, calligraphy, Pueblo black-on-black pottery, Navajo weaving traditions—all practices in attention to form and beauty that are through-lines in Sze’s poems. The White Orchard streams as if sourced from the gate of Acequia del Llano, the destination of the poet’s daily pre-dawn pilgrimage during Sante Fe’s irrigation season. It is here at this gate that guides the water that we can be almost everywhere at once: in rising surf and gently falling snow; in a courtyard in Medellín and on an ice sheet in an Alaskan bay. The final poem is “Transpiration,” and we close this book as it opens again, holding the reflection of the Milky Way, the gaze at light from a vanished star, “the point of no—and infinite—return.”
The Glass Constellation is a seminal and distinct collection, offering an immersion in Sze’s expansive and exacting poetic imagination. We can follow the evolution of Sze’s poetics from his early painterly and contemplative style to one of radical attunement. As he writes in Quipu’s “Oracle-Bone Script,” “In oracle-bone script, the character for attunement / is a series of bamboo pipes tied together with string; / if only I had the words to make things that accord / in tone vibrate together.” Indeed, the constellation of these poems divines something beyond words.
Sze’s extensive collection of poems invites us to hear an expanding web of vibrations, not just through each of the books collected here, but between them, as if each poem opens infinitely in all directions. You can enter The Glass Constellation at any point and find a path: “A point is a period, / an intersection, spore, center of a circle, / or— . . . / the beginning of a vector in any direction.” All these poems absorb, reflect, and transmit each other, all accord into an oracular vibration.
Yet, if looking for a pathway, there are specific and numerous strings, or through-lines, one can follow through all of Sze’s poems: themes of mushroom hunting, weaving, astronomical phenomena, the intimacy of lovers, indigo-dyeing traditions, tea. “As in a quipu where colored, knotted strings // hang off a primary cord—or as a series / of acequias off the Pojoaque River drop water // into fields—the mind ties knots, and I / follow a series of short strings to a loose end—” Together, the poems of The Glass Constellation offer braided questions subtly answered by the “loose end”—the realization that there is no distinct answer, only motion, energy, waves.
“I follow the wave,” writes the poet in the “The String Diamond,” “I may find it [the wave] pulling yarn out of an indigo vat / for the twentieth time, watching the yarn / turn dark, darker in air. I find it / with my hand along the curve of your waist, / sensing in slow seconds the tilt of the Milky Way.”
If we were going to be poets, Arthur told us one day in class, we were committing to a life of working and reworking. This was a lesson in indigo: by increasing the dips of yarn into dye and oxidizing it by compounded exposure to the air, the fabric deepens, darkens to a point of near disappearance, the almost-black, the last breath of light.
Poetry is a way of seeing, he said; it must become a life-long practice, a part of our breath. Writing poetry is an attempt to see, hear, and language the world in infinite articulations, to get closer to the source, some impossible center of creation. A black hole, perhaps, or the core of the sun, through which all senses, hues, textures, sounds erupt—as mushroom spores explode in the lightest breath and “vanish in the white-pored silence.”
There is an immense silence, or the clearest crystal-toned ringing, that emanates from the nearly three hundred poems that comprise Arthur Sze’s The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems. This incandescent collection by one of our time’s most masterful poets is an invitation for us all to see ourselves, our lives, this earth, and one another in clear, attuned radiance, as hanging jewels, each absorbing and reflecting every other, on the “infinite net” that the poet calls consciousness.
Thankfully, as we will undoubtedly be eager for Sze’s future collections, poetry is never complete. And it is always complete. Sze begins The Glass Constellation with the poem entitled “Before Completion.” We may sense, thus, that the book will move energetically toward completion; we may hope that poetry can make, from the chaos, a cosmos, and therein settle our uncertainties. But just as “Before Completion” is the final of sixty-four hexagrams and one that follows the hexagram “After Completion,” Sze’s poetry oscillates, as do all waves, in the impossibility of completion, in this is the ever-expanding cosmos.