The Last Predicta.
by Chad Davidson
The Ginkgo Light (Copper Canyon, 2009)
by Arthur Sze
A novelist friend once teased me about the randomness of the poetic process: You poets drive along a country road. It's snowing. Ice flocks the windshield. Dr. Laura jabbers on the radio about orgasm. You finger an annoying bit of earwax and squint, causing your car to careen into a ditch. You cobble this all together, and--voila--a poem.
In a way he's right. Triggered by forces private, societal, fictive, formal, balky, accidental and fortuitous, poems are often a matter of working in the gaps between disparities, that nexus in which anachronism and unlikely juxtaposition can lead to an unlooked-for insight, summons or reorganization of interior registers, allowing us to see things more deeply, clearly, as if for the first time. Such poems make of the seemingly unrelated a unity, however precarious or vexed, of confluential events. Materiality and mystery are involved.
Arthur Sze's The Ginkgo Light and Chad Davidson's The Last Predicta are complementary field guide/breviaries for navigating the realms of poetic synchronicity. While borrowing discourses of science, math and philosophy, both poets dodge the snares of dialectic, making flesh sense of what Schopenhauer called "the simultaneous occurrence of causally unconnected events."
The two books trope each other as physical objects. Coincidence? Both are perfect-bound 9 x 6-inch paperbacks whose shiny covers are dominated by obsidian, the lustrous gold of illuminated manuscripts and hints of teal. The designs are vertical and suggestively oracular, Sze's featuring a Chinese-brushwork-inspired, minimalist waterfall and its flume, verdigris against a gold that evokes the yellow leaf of the ginkgo, a stalwart tree that has survived all manner of holocaust since ancient times and which forms a leitmotif in the collection. Davidson's offers a photo of The Philco "Continental" Predicta, an iconic, stylized mid-century television floating Jetson-like in a cosmos of fathomless black. The gilt monitor stares back at the reader like a robotic prophet, taunting with an "I coulda been a predicta" pop-cultural prescience, savvy, and irony that will prevail in the poems that follow.
Sze is a serial thinker, a prodigious "collector," within and among poems. Three long, sectioned sequences anchor the book, but each poem has the feel of a wunderkammer as "the mind flits, imbibes" among sometimes dizzying catalogs of tactile and theoretical, philosophical and quotidian, personal and historical details:
As bits of consciousnesses constellate, I rouse to a 3 A.M. December rain on the skylight. A woman sweeps glass shards in a driveway, oblivious to elm branches reflected on windshields of passing cars. Juniper crackles in the fireplace; flukes break the water as a whale dives. The path of totality is not marked by a shadow hurtling across the earth's surface at three thousand kilometers per hour. Our eyelashes attune to each other. At the mouth of an arroyo, a lamb skull and ribcage bleach in the sand; tufts of fleece caught on barbed wire vanish. The Shang carved characters in the skulls of their enemies, but what transpired here? You do not need to steep turtle shells in blood to prognosticate clouds.
This passage from "Chrysalis" exemplifies Sze's ability to list, in almost helixical continuum, events and observations that may appear at first to meander haphazardly and oneirically across time and space, but which actually create a kinetic quickening of "the living to the living." Sze mixes cultural and religious traditions (Western, Eastern, Native American) and recounts with equal precision and attention private pleasures and historic horrors, making of fractal cataloging a way of being and knowing: "the zigzag path to bliss." His poems are obsessed with part and whole ("each hour teems"), as the titles ("Tesserae," "The Double Helix," "Fraetal") often suggest. This rampant simultaneity of forces and the natural and human ability to endure them suggest that although "the pieces of a life stay pieces / at the end" ("The Gift") it is also true that "to recoil from darkness is to feed the darkness, / to suffer in time is--dichotomous venation--// to effloresce the time" ("The Ginkgo Light").
Sze's "zigzag path" can be vertiginous, making it hard for the reader to negotiate the hair-trigger leaps in these relentless lists. This may be Sze's intention--"Sometimes one fingers annihilation / before breaking into bliss" --to disorient the reader through slippage of subject and syntax into a state of ecstatic, open discernment. In one poem, Sze alludes to Pasteur's famous remark that chance favors the ready mind; Sze 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."
Davidson, too, is obsessed with the dance between chance and meaning, particularly as played out in time and culture against an apocalyptic backdrop. If every hour "teems" for Sze, for Davidson "every hour is the autopsy of a second" ("Starburst"); instead of cataloguing the myriad notes struck in any one moment, Davidson's poems deploy a chiasmus-like ostinato plundering of linguistic coincidences and resemblances to reveal more complex causes, meanings: "On the corner of every disaster," for example, morphs into "On the disaster of every coroner" in "Starburst"; in the wild ride that is the prose poem "Tokyo: A Parable," Davidson writes: "There is a bar in Tokyo where sushi arrives on the plate of a naked woman. There is a Tokyo in sushi, microbes in microbe high-rises, where the plate of a naked woman arrives on a bar in a bar named for some ridiculous fish or movie star. When Tokyo arrives, I hail her with my shorn chopsticks now resting on the plate of a naked woman named for some ridiculous fish or movie star." In "Flies," "Grapes left to flies for want / of us sprawled in bed late / are still grapes left to flies."
A Davidson cocktail mixes high and low culture (the reader is as likely to encounter Christina Aguilera as St. Teresa of Avila), a concern with augury ("For each new generation a new genus," he writes in the title poem, "and the genius who named it, / who foretold the dangers / / the widely cultivated horror / of solid state circuitry would be to us / who lived by the conduit, / cast in the die of predictable strangers"), and a stereoscopic manipulation of words to make meaning. Occasionally a poem will seem so taken with its own pop-cultural cleverness that wit and dazzle stand in for illumination. But at their best, Davidson's poems conflate their ironies with elegiac lyricism, as in these lines from "Idol," a vanitas that explores a scene at a Mexican resort ("April's perennials: / crucifixion, Cadbury eggs, taxation, spring break"):
Oysters swirl in brine, a wedge of lime. Someone wails, Swallow! swallow! as you begin the ageless questioning after the skull's wind, this gift your tongue makes a hollow thing of. How can thy heart be full of spring? you might ask four frat boys buoying on the hard deck of the beach disco. Two hoist a beer funnel as you flick your ashes. The mind then an open grave, a hull cavernous, sconce-haunted. The one squatting, funneling now--eyes rolled back, forearms aquiver--lights up in a slow burning vision of the eternal topless afterparty. Every Ida is there. Ida, you say, what is the last whale's language? Swallow, swallow.
I'm grateful that serendipity brought these two books to my desk. Each intimates that we live in currents transcending rational thought and traditional physical laws. Like Sze's abiding ginkgo ("Once thought extinct ... // and propagated back into the world") or Davidson's transient road-kill ("For here, opossum / lies without the solitude // placentas give, or breasts we cover / because our nakedness would call to us // from when we knew nothing more of God / than what fit inside out mouths"), we are utterly vulnerable and perennially stalwart. That language provides a means of confronting this paradoxical, manifold predicament is cause for terror and for joy.