Poems of Place: A Review of Arthur Sze’s Sight Lines

Arthur Sze’s tenth book of poetry, Sight Lines, has just won the 2019 National Book Award (NBA). An honored poet with notable accolades (he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2009 book, The Ginkgo Light), his newest collection has already garnered high praise in interviews and reviews. Sight Lines has, at its center, a series of poems which connect us to New Mexico (where he has lived since 1972 and currently teaches as Professor Emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe). In “Black Center,” he writes, “when the last speaker of a language dies/a hue vanishes from the spectrum of visible light,” a stinging line referencing New Mexico where there are 23 Indian tribes: nineteen Pueblos, three Apache tribes, and the Navajo Nation. Original language here is crucial, both for continued culture and survival.

In “Under a Rising Moon,” Sze places the speaker and the reader geographically between Chinle (Chʼínílį́) (“flowing out”) and Tsaile (Tsééhílį́), Arizona, in the Navajo Nation, on the border with New Mexico.

Driving at night between Chinle and Tsaile,
I fixate on deer along the road: in the headlights,
they’re momentary blinded but could leap out.
An unglazed pot fired and streaked from ash…

Then he brings us “Diné women tied their infants/on cradle boards…” (Diné being the name the Navajo call themselves), to…the ancient Anasazi marveling “at the whitening sheen on the cliff.” We are in a place both present and past, what is here and what is lost. An earned awareness, Sze’s connection to New Mexico is a pivot-point in Sight Lines.

In addition, in his poem, “First Snow,” we have a rabbit “imbibing the silence,” “a buck scraped his rack/against an aspen trunk,” and “starlight behind daylight wherever you gaze.” The rack and the aspen trunk are similar, both in texture and in their whiteness. He situates us into the grounded world of New Mexico and lifts us behind its famous light. Light, a “whitening,” which is repeated throughout the book, is in a sense crucial, a visual of what Sze does verbally with moments: this kind of splintering light becomes connective. We rub and see behind, beneath, and imbibe what is before us.

Sze follows “First Snow” with a one-line poem, beginning with a dash, as a kind of aside: —Salt cedar rises through silt in an irrigation ditch—. Here again is a tangible link to a landscape known, loved, and lived in. In my correspondence with Sze, he wrote, “…sense of place is very important and is grounding, even centering, to the book. In the short title poem, the speaker is walking in the Ancon de Jacona acequia in the off-season when water is not running. …as the Tao Te-Ching says, ‘to travel far is to return.’ In many ways that ‘return’ is also about trying to appreciate and see things again for the first time.”

A page or so later, in his poem, “White Sands,” Sze brings us into the White Sands of Northern New Mexico. Rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basin are glistening wave-like dunes of gypsum, 275 square miles of desert, a dune field. It is a beautiful place, as Sze describes it:

—Walking along a ridge of white sand—
it’s cooler below the surface—
we stop and, gazing at an expanse
of dunes to the west,
watch a yellow yolk of sun drop to the mountains—
an hour earlier, we rolled down a dune,
white sand flecked your eyelids and hair—
a claret cup cactus blooms,
and soaptree yuccas
move as a dune moves—
so many years later, on a coast, waves rolling to shore,
wave after wave,
I see how our lives have unfolded,
a sheen of
wave after whitening wave—
and we are stepping barefoot,
rolling down a dune, white flecks on our lips,
on our eyelids: we are lying in a warm dune
as a full moon
lifts against an ocean of sky.

Here are his well-known markers: desert to ocean, present to past, specifics to “ocean of sky.” When I asked him about how the dashes seem to push the poems forward in almost a gulp of breath, he wrote: “There are lots of waves in the poem: waves of sand that make sand dunes, the waves of water that are seen years later on a coast, and the waves of time that connect past and present.” In other words, the shape of the poem, the two- and three-line stanzas, enact waves. The poem is about flux/time/memory/desire, how things found in white sands (the claret cup cactus, for instance) may be rooted, but the sand is shifting. This is also, for the poet, a place of visitation, of the “whitening.” This is a poem too, of New Mexico; the dunes shape our thinking about where we live. As do Sze’s poems.

And then: “—The plutonium waste has been hauled to an underground site—”. Here we have what Sze has done throughout his writing: he thrusts us into the complex, the beneath of what appears so lovely and reminds us also of the real agonies of the world. And, in part, he shows us the complex history of New Mexico—the dunes and the plutonium. 

As he does with the one-line poems throughout Sight Lines, he uses the dash as both link and divider. His poetic juxtapositions bind and separate and move beyond East and West. Sze brings us this not only through his language and descriptions, but also even more subtly, through his punctuation. He is attuned to visual art. These dashes, slashes before and after lines of poetry, both direct us, and halt us. They mark the white page. In the last poem of the book, “Glass Constellation,” he uses the strike-through both to show and delete at the same time. In some ways these words and phrases—“pissed,” “fucking,” “coming down the street,” “piss me off,” “maybe/I’ll move to Denver”—are a way that Sze applies the Sous Rature, Under Erasure. “Because the words are inaccurate,” he explains, “they are struck through.” It is as close to showing what one is saying and what one is thinking as a poet can get. It vibrates.

These poems are remarkable in their stringency, the complex use of every gesture, move, and word. Arthur Sze offers us in Sight Lines a poetry that we will be reading for the coming years.




Veronica Golos is the author of four poetry books: GIRL (3: A Taos Press) awarded the Naji Naaman Honor Prize for Poetry, 2019 (Beirut, Lebanon); Rootwork (3: A Taos Press. 2015); Vocabulary of Silence (Red Hen Press, 2011), winner of the 2011 New Mexico Book Award, translated into Arabic by poet Nizar Sartawi; and A Bell Buried Deep (Storyline Press, 2004), co-winner of the 16th Annual Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize, adapted for stage and performed at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA. Golos has read or lectured at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, Hunter College, Julliard School of Music, Regis University, University of New Mexico, Dine (Navajo) Technical College, Kansas State University, and Colorado State University, among others. She lives in Taos, New Mexico. U.S.A., with her husband, David Pérez.