It’s a rare and beautiful thing to witness a poet discover his or her raison d’écrire. That’s a phrase that I made up. It means, if I’ve got it right, “reason for writing.” I wanted it to echo the more common French phrase raison d’être which means … well, you know that one.
Between 1972 and 1982, Arthur Sze, Santa Fe’s first poet laureate and now a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, wrote three books of beautiful, carefully wrought, relatively conventional lyric poems. And then, sometime between 1982 and 1987, when his fourth book, River River was published, everything changed.
Sze’s stylistic evolution was more punctuated equilibrium than gradualism, but there are hints, traceable in hindsight, that it was coming. In his third book, Dazzled, in the poem “The Axis,” we find these lines: “The fact is, we know so little, / but are quick to interpret, to fit facts to our schema.” The poem questions this schematizing impulse. Lurking behind this distrust of interpretation and “schema” was probably Sze’s interest in disruption in Taoist and Zen Buddhist traditions.
“Poetry doesn’t explain the world,” the poet Chuck Calabreze once said, “it unexplains it.” Explanation is one way we insulate ourselves from meaninglessness, but, in fitting facts to our schema, we can fail to see the world as it is. In the mid-80s, Sze’s poetry was moving rapidly away from explanation and toward immersion. The shift that was about to occur in Sze’s work was both radical and new, akin to Jackson Pollock (influenced by Navajo sand painting) suddenly throwing the canvas to the floor and stalking it with dripping brushes and cans of paint.
According to Sze himself, the change occurred —the discovery was made—in “The Leaves of a Dream are the Leaves of an Onion,” which became the opening poem of River River. In stanza two of “The Leaves of a Dream…” we find an echo of the earlier lines from “The Axis”: “All night you feel / red horses galloping in your blood, / hear a piercing siren, and are in love / with the inexplicable.” This shift from critique of explanation to embrace of the inexplicable signaled the deep shift in his poetic practice.
A man in prison is called horse face, but does nothing
when everyone in the tailor shop has sharp cold scissors;
he remembers the insult but laughs it off. Even as he
laughs, a Cattaraugus Indian welding a steel girder
turns at a yell which coincides with the laugh and slips
to his death. I open a beer, a car approaches a garage.
The door opens, a light comes on, inside rakes gleam;
a child with dysentery washes his hands in cow piss.
I find a trail of sawdust, walk in a dead killer's
hardened old shoes, and feel how difficult it is to
sense the entire danger of the moment: a horse gives birth
to a foal, power goes out in the city, a dancer
stops in the dark and listening for the noise that was scored
in the performance hears only sudden panicked yells.
In a world torn between scientific explanation, on one hand, and personal narrative (driven by postmodernism’s insistence that “more discourse” would eventually scuttle the “master narratives” of patriarchy, imperialism, science and capitalism) on the other, Sze was coming about and raising his sails on a different tack altogether. He was challenging explanation and narrative both. Instead of inhabiting the narrow harbor of subjectivity, time and local causality, he was discovering a new way to be in the open sea, with what the poet John Keats called “negative capability,” the ability to inhabit the poem “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” without, that is, a need to explain.
In these new poems, Sze was not embodying a preconceived idea, he was exploring a world of things and events that were happening simultaneously, but that were also synchronous —meaningfully, but mysteriously, related. We’re free to discover a scheme, a theory, an explanation, but the poem will also remain itself, just as the world is amenable to various schema but also stubbornly exists beyond any one particular theory. The poems both invite and deflect interpretation. And this combination of interconnectivity, (possibly) causality-at-a-distance, and letting things be exactly themselves is an inherently ecological position, which is why those studying the relatively new field of ecopoetics are exploring Sze’s works.
But it’s time for a poem. I’ve been using Sze’s “Horse Face” in my poetry writing classes for many years to introduce another way, besides linear narrative, of organizing a poem and one’s experience of the world. See if this poem doesn’t, even as it calls on us “to feel the entire danger of the moment,” open you up to the stark beauty of the world in a new way.
As with all of Sze’s poems, “Horse Face” is allusive, with references to Horse Face, the guardian of the Underworld in Chinese mythology, to the fact that Cattaraugus Indians helped build many of New York’s skyscrapers, and to Ayurvedic medicine, which maintains that cow urine can cure dysentery. The tone of the poem is complex, and it seems to say something about life and art with its final image, an image which is even more chilling in this age of mass shootings and terrorist attacks when the moment feels more dangerous than ever. Here Sze seems to suggest a set of possible connections in the moment, across space, assembling a model of this inexplicable world and inviting us to meditate upon it, to join him, not in explaining it, but in feeling and inhabiting it.
Jon Davis is the Poet Laureate for the City of Santa Fe. He teaches creative writing at the Institute for American Indian Arts. The name of this new column comes from the poet Walt Whitman, who wrote “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”