Book Review: Sight Lines by Arthur Sze

Thanks to Copper Canyon Press for advance review copy. Review by Linda Ashok

In the white US and saffron India, there isn’t a sensible human being who isn’t aware of the violent shadow of discrimination. From here, if we paraglide to the most revered act of paying attention and then drill our focus a few inches deep into its composition, we’ll know that ‘attention’ is equally culpable of ‘discrimination,’ which is to mean that when we give something our undivided attention, we are unconsciously discriminating our surrounding and syllables from enjoying the very ‘attention’. This observation might conflict you for a while, but soon like that enthusiastic little child who cannot be thwarted by a fall and is eager to explore the world with their little feet, you would be charged to discover how you can offset such discriminatory aspect to being attentive. Maybe you’d consider rendering your attention a bit more stretch to invite the participation of your surrounding or yours on the little things that surround you? If this sounds like an attractive gaze, I invite to get a copy of Sight Lines authored by Arthur Sze; an absolute marvel that is set to dazzle your notion of attention.

Photograph by Eric Swanson.

Over the course of the book, Arthur Sze, an award-winning Chinese-American poet and professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, asks his readerswho knows the mind of a watermelon vendor picking his teeth…,” “where’s our mortal flare,” “what can the dead teach us…,” “what if salt or a lichen or the erhu spoke? Or “how did it evolve from carnivore to eater of bamboo?” referring to a “panda’s black patches around its eyes.” These questions do not discourage the act of paying attention but strengthens its tenets by inviting readers to broaden their scope of attention otherwise marshaled toward hand-to-mouth priorities. He invites a more holistic living that’s appreciative of the world evading that glare of one’s remote control. If you have a moment to indulge, could you answer “how aspirations of a minute thin on one’s fingertips,” or “the path of a man on crutches begging at a spotlight?” This is how Sze invites to our conscience care for unaccounted things and undocumented lives.


Cloud Hands

A woman moves through a Cloud Hands position,
………………………holding and rotating

an invisible globe—thud, shattering glass, moan,
………………………horn blast—so many

worlds to this world—two men dipnet
………………………sockeye salmon

at the mouth of a river—from a rooftop, a seagull
………………………squawks and cries;

a woman moves through Grasp the Bird’s Tail—
………………………someone on a stretcher

is wheeled past glass doors—a desert five-spot
………………………rises in a wash—

and, pressing her tongue to the roof
………………………of her mouth,

she focuses, in the near distance, on the music
………………………of sycamore leaves.


While one aspect of Sight Lines, as discussed above,  is the disambiguation of ‘attention,’ the other is ‘distance.’ Sight Lines typically refers to a hypothetical line from one’s eye to gauge the quality of visibility of a particular subject in the distance. But in this very title poem, Sze breaks the very understanding of ‘hypothetical distance’ wherein subjects despite holding on to their original positions are harmoniously brought together under the radar of gratitude and appreciation, of acknowledgment that delivers us to a grand reconciliation with the archetypal nature of beings and things. In this penultimate poem, Sze is concerned for the man who earlier built plutonium triggers but now breeds horses, of himself stepping out to step deeper into himself, of a child being separated from their mother shot during the Cultural Revolution. If one keenly observes, would notice how ‘distance’ is breaking itself from the confines of monosemy and weaving a new umbilical between an object and its meaning, between a life and its event, between innocence and its exposure to violence. So the images he draws of events and incidents, of turn in fate and faith, tell us of sight lines that suffer our discrimination of focus, of attention that only our motives are entitled to.

Where else but in Sight Lines will you find yourself braving an abandon of the self to embrace the unfetchable realities that scaffold our living on earth! Refer to these lines from The Glass Constellation and you would surprise yourself at how ‘distance’ and ‘attention’ have been fused to tease your appetite for marvel.

“gazing into the vortex of the white page:

no jackal-headed god needs to weigh
your heart against an eagle feather—

at sunrise you divert water from the ditch
to sprinklers that swish, spray

the grass—a soldier on point pauses—

who knows the path of a man on crutches
begging at a stoplight?—from the under-

ground uranium mine, a shock wave
shattered windows in the village above—

in the dictionary, you open to choclea”

The Glass Constellation

From the above samples, it is conclusive that grief, albeit one of the most mundane emotions, always overpowers us. Loss and brokenness being equally ordinary are almost always afloat in our everyday living. We have no power over these to be able to reject or avoid them. And this is not something I am offering you to contest about but to consider it in context of us overpowering appreciation, calling concern and empathy mundane—defend our ruthlessness by hedging our lives against mundanity. Sight Lines has no split ends; it is a membrane-bound organelle that’s constantly tuning the art of focus to speak of light and loss. In the words of Calvino, “Contemplating the stars,” Sze “has become accustomed to considering himself an anonymous and incorporeal dot, almost forgetting that he exists; to deal now with human beings, he cannot help involving himself, and he no longer knows where his self is to be found.”


Arthur Sze is the author of nine books of poetry, including Compass Rose (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), The Ginkgo Light, Quipu, The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, and Archipelago, all published by Copper Canyon Press. His tenth book of poetry, Sight Lines, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in early 2019. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers, a Lannan Literary Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017 and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. A Professor Emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Arthur Sze lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Courtesy: Terrain.org


Linda Ashok is the author of ‘whorelight‘ (Hawakal, 2017) and the editor of Poetry&Poets. She is the founding editor of Best Indian Poetry, publisher of RLFPA Editions, and funds the annual RL Poetry Award since 2013.  To learn more about her published works; poetry, essays, interviews, etc., visit lindaashok.com.


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