Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Eleanor Stanford and Arthur Sze
By Lisa Russ SpaarSeptember 3, 2015
Bartram’s Garden by Eleanor Stanford
Two Ravens by Arthur Sze
ONE PLEASURE FOR ME in revisiting a poet’s second book of poems has been exploring the myriad formats these sophomore offerings can take. If the volume has won an award, or is appearing from one of the big publishing houses, it may be issued in hardcover initially, with an elegant slip jacket, or at the very least in high-end, substantial paperback format, perhaps with those fancy (and memorably named) “French flaps.” Others, no less significant in terms of content, appear for a variety of reasons in more modest ways — the ubiquitous standard perfect-bound paperback, for example, sometimes under the imprimatur of an established press and sometimes vetted through the portals of various self-publishing venues, or even occasionally ink-jetted onto folded papers and stapled or stitched into cardstock covers. Or, in lucky circumstances, these second collections come out in small-run, fine letterpress editions. At other times these books appear as part of a visually uniform “series”: the iconic small, square, two-tone volumes in the Pocket Poets Series published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, for instance, or the waxy sheen of Tuumba covers — I think, too, of the “branded,” easily identified covers and format of early poetry titles published by New Issues Press and Braziller Books.
The poet and translator Arthur Sze, whose many major awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the 2013 Jackson Poetry Prize, the Poet Laureateship of Santa Fe, and a Lannan Literary Award, is the author of nine books of poetry and the translator/editor of The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese. A second-generation Chinese writer, he is professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. His books, including The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, have for many years been published by the independent publisher Copper Canyon Press, well known for their exquisitely designed volumes. But his first several books (The Willow Wind, 1972; Two Ravens, 1976; Dazzled, 1982) appeared from a handful of small presses that burgeoned during what is called by some the Mimeo Revolution, a period stretching roughly from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, during which increasingly affordable and available printing technologies — like the mimeograph machine and the photocopier — made it easier for poets outside of the mainstream (or simply those eager to reach readers more economically) to go DIY: Do-It-Yourself. According to Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips in A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960–1980, “With direct access to mimeograph machines, letterpress, and inexpensive offset” this “underground economy of poets” was able to roll their own, affordably side-stepping more traditional paths to publication. Writers, especially experimental ones, could affordably print and distribute their new work, often hot off the press, with no small thanks due to the prevalent independent booksellers willing to purvey it to a vibrant subscription-based and public reading community.
Noah Eli Gordon, in a 2010 essay for Jacket about the ongoing relevance of such small publications, especially chapbooks, writes:
Continuing through Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, the mimeo revolution of the 60s, the advent of photocopying and desktop publishing, and the production of PDF files containing the online equivalent, the chapbook now thrives in the esoteric though open space of contemporary poetry. From work that is self-published and stapled to studiously letter-pressed and hand-stitched, and whether published in conjunction with a reading series, like those of Belladonna Books in New York City, as part of a subscription service, like the output of Ugly Duckling Presse, or as an offshoot of a larger publishing project, like Sarabande’s Quarternote Chapbooks or even Rain Taxi’s own Brainstorm Series, the chapbook constitutes a crucial nexus of the poetry community.
As Meira Levinson and Lyle Waugh put it in a catalog accompanying a recent show at the Poet’s House, Chapbooks from the Mimeo Revolution: From New American Poetry to New Sentence, the psycho-geography of these more home-made ventures involved, for poets, consciously “situating their work, including its mechanical reproduction, outside, if not against, mainstream concerns. […] [T]hese poets discovered an empowering form of marginality that opened fresh networks of correspondence, collaboration, and community.” The colophon at the back of Arthur Sze’s third book, Dazzled, for instance, which appeared from Floating Island Publications in 1982, announces that the book was “[d]esigned and produced by Michael Sykes and Cindy Ohama at their home on stilts of the water of Tomales Bay.”
Back to Arthur Sze. I’ve admired his work for years (and have written about it elsewhere). Sze’s poems are notable for their provocative layerings and serial arrangements, which create a “zig-zag path” of fault-lines and through-lines, traversing science, ecology, geopolitics, topography, time, and — more and more — eros. (It’s hard not to feel the presence of eros embedded in the “rose” of his most recent collection, Compass Rose). As I’ve written, his poems
would appear to make an intentional poetic practice of apposing the minutest and most cosmic details of the world's plethora (‘a Cooper's / hawk perched on a cottonwood branch / quickens our synapses’) to enact a diapason of significance. Paying attention to Sze paying attention rewards the reader with protean vision characterized by risk, whim and wonder:
He does not need to spot their looping footprints
to recognize they missed several chances before
finding countless chanterelles in a clearing.
If joy, joy; if regret, regret; if ecstasy, ecstasy.
When they die, they vanish into their words.
Before setting out to write about Sze for this second-book feature, what I knew of Sze’s earliest work I had gleaned from the selections, some of them revised, that he made for inclusion in his new and selected collection, The Redshifting Web. Of the 35 poems in Two Ravens (and I should mention here that Sze later revised this second book and reissued it, also with Tooth of Time Press, along with some translations from the Chinese, but for the purposes of this essay I’ll be working from the original 1976 edition), Sze chose just 12 for inclusion in his new and selected volume.
Two Ravens measures 5 1/2 x 7 inches. Its cover is card stock; its poems appear to have been typewritten and copied. The book is illustrated with mystical, Southwestern-inspired mandala-like hand-drawings in blue by John and Gioia Brandi. (A former Peace Corps volunteer, John Brandi founded Tooth of Time Press in the early 1970s, naming it after a northern New Mexico rock formation.) The book’s handcrafted feel creates a sense of intimacy: even the circle around the “copyright” symbol, for instance, is drawn in. The small format suits the poems, which are lean, ideogramatic, with oneiric strokes of color and image, perhaps influenced by William Carlos Williams and by the Chinese poems Sze was translating at the time. None of the poems reaches beyond a page in length, and many of them are cast entirely in lowercase font. The poems, often homages to artistic influences or spoken in personae, are stitched with questions, and in these respects they differ from Sze’s later poems, which are often longer, more declarative than interrogative, and composed as numbered, titled sequences in which the speakers travel almost helixically among pop-cultural, political, and personal terrains, within and across poems.
Yet the poems in the second book, as with those in his inaugural volume The Willow Wind, glint with the obsessions that will continue to haunt the body of Sze’s work: mythical thinking, sidereal awareness, and intersections of natural and human worlds, of history and geography. Sze’s later long-form and serial work can be described as a mesh of knots and cords, nodes and dendrites, mixing clusters of concrete imagery with passages of abstract meditation or musing. But these early poems seem to come from a deep practice of compression, getting those knots, those nodes and image-clusters as potent as possible before allowing fluid connections to develop among them. In an interview with Miriam Sagan for Shadowgraph Magazine (2013), Sze talks about how his early translations of Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei were part of his search for his own voice. Later, searching for a way “to extend a poem beyond 20 – 30 lines,” Sze found that the poetry of Wen I-to took “classic T’ang dynasty images and subvert[ed] them, … juxtapos[ing] the harsh realities of twentieth-century China against pure lyric.” Clearly something like this juxtaposition happens for Sze in his own work, with premonitions of it already present in early poems like “2 Ravens”:
discussed the weather?
Or, perhaps, inquired about spring?
2 ravens, lovers, discussed my death,
as I watched.
The poem “lament” also contrasts “pure lyric” with reality:
in what is now
an arroyo, in the ’30s
into ice & fished
a blue river
in the winter sun.
in cities, they
listened to percussion & drums,
&, on cocaine,
chanted blue words:
make it quake & rain
in the bars.
at night, the moon is hunting:
indians are its
“2 Ravens” is deceptively simple, but the poet turns its imagistic anthropomorphizing back on himself in the second quatrain, deepening the poem through this triangulation, moving into realms of jealousy and mortality. “lament” is a more overtly political poem, and not one with many surprises. But the introduction of “cocaine” into the indigenous environment of moon and sun, ice and fish, lets one world intrude on another. Sze will do this more and more in the poems that follow, in order, again, to complicate his imagistic and painterly attentiveness with illuminating and often unlooked-for juxtapositions across time and space. It’s exciting to see inklings of both of these early, brief poems, for example, in a more recent, longer poem, “After a New Moon,” from Compass Rose:
Each evening you gaze in the southwest sky
as a crescent extends in argentine light.
When the moon was new, your mind was
desireless, but now both wax to the world.
While your neighbor’s field is cleared,
your corner plot is strewn with desiccated
sunflower stalks. You scrutinize the bare
apricot limbs that have never set fruit,
the wisteria that has never blossomed,
and wince, hearing how, at New Year’s,
teens bashed in a door and clubbed strangers.
Near a pond, someone kicks a dog out
of a pickup. Each second, a river edged
with ice shifts course. Last summer’s
exposed tractor tire is nearly buried
under silt. An owl lifts from a poplar,
while the moon, no, the human mind
moves from brightest bright to darkest dark.
An earlier Sze poem might have consisted of something like these adaptations from the lines above:
after a new moon
each evening you gaze
in the southwest sky
as a crescent extends
in argentine light.
when the moon was new,
your mind was desireless.
now both wax to the world.
after a new moon
exposed tractor tire
is nearly buried
an owl lifts from a poplar,
while the moon
or is it the human mind?
moves from brightest bright
to darkest dark.
Both of these redacted poems possess suggestive lyric potency. Over the course of his career, Sze has developed a kind of “chordal” poetics of serial continuum, amplitude, and nonlinear “history.” He does not abandon the precise, image-focused intelligence evident in his early work, but instead relies on its rudiments, its crystalline essence, for his poetry’s authenticity, protean range, and palpable force.
Eleanor Stanford’s second book of poems, Bartram’s Garden, like her first, The Book of Sleep, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, one of the country’s most respected university presses, and one which has maintained since its inception an abiding devotion to the publication of poetry. Now in its 41st year of publishing, CMUP had its beginnings in Three Rivers Press, founded by poet, professor, and editor Gerald Costanzo in 1972, and featuring chapbooks, full-length collections, and a journal. Costanzo began publishing titles under the Carnegie Mellon Press imprint in 1975, and, with a keen eye for promising writers — among them Rita Dove, Franz Wright, and Ted Kooser — he continues to serve the press as its director and presiding spirit.
Like Sze, Stanford is a poet acutely attuned to the physical world, manifested through science, nature, culture, and the sensuous realms of food, drink, and love. Bartram’s Garden, in fact, refers to the home and gardens of America’s first botanist and “collector” of indigenous plant species, John Bartram, whose house and grounds outside of Philadelphia are now preserved and open to visitors and scholars (a botanical drawing by John’s son William, also a naturalist, graces the cover of Stanford’s collection). In a manner also akin to Sze, she uses nodes or clusters of sensory detail to propel the oneiric “plots” of her poems. But while the flood subject of Sze’s work might be said to be “time” and its relationship with place, history, and geographies both physical and metaphysical, the primal matter of Stanford’s poems is the body, particularly the female body, and its vicissitudes, capacities, betrayals, and desires.
Sometimes, as with the early poems of Sze, Stanford lets one of these image clusters stand, koan-like, on its own:
She snaps the linens square.
A field of flax: glaucous green,
unspun. She crossed the border
lying on a raft. Perhaps
her eyes were shut. Perhaps
staring at the muddy sky.
In the meadow, in mid-
June, memory’s cold
light flashes. My son
Holds it in cupped
Hands, saying, can I keep it?
Can it be my pet?
In other poems — with forms including a villanelle, a pantoum, ghazals, Bach-like, contrapuntal “inventions,” sonnets — Stanford allows the pulse points of imagery to layer and accrue, thus advancing story, often the story of a woman who feels exiled, geographically (many of the poems take place in what are to the speaker foreign places), psychically, and from her own body:
In dreams I return to Salvador. The roads
are washed out. I have to swim. Or
I am held at gunpoint
in front of the coconut stand.
Yet it is unmistakably
the same city where I once
lived. Where I walked
with a newborn in my arms,
first light spreading through the palms.
It is true, the dawn redwood,
believed to exist only as a fossil
was, in 1941, discovered living
in a rural Chinese province.
For myself, though, I do not believe
in miraculous returns.
In no region of this earth
will I again wake to soothe
an infant’s ferny cries, or find myself
flooded, suddenly, with milk.
In this beautifully melancholic poem, we trace the risk and vulnerability of living; the body of the speaker: the fertile mother’s body has become, must become, its own fossil. Any “miraculous return” of the irrevocably lost can only happen in the body as a fabrication of dream or memory. Or — and here’s the poet’s sleight of hand, her gift — through the fabrication that is the poem. Stanford’s volume concludes with an image-focused short lyric that feels very much to be poetic kin to the work of Sze:
Sweat stood at attention
on the prow of his nose.
It was still: windless.
This thin rope tossed out
to the drowning.
And the Lehigh rising,
carrying the little leaf-boats
The smallest moments of incipience — an owl lifting from a poplar, a “hunting” moon clad in silver, an infant’s dropped feeding on the path toward weaning — can reach far out into the reaches of all inevitable endings. In the life lines of their poems, gathered for readers in these second books, both Arthur Sze and Eleanor Stanford present whatever consolation can be extended by the close attention paid to such motions, of language, of the body, of “the human mind / … from brightest bright to darkest dark.”
Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.
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