At six a.m. the Big Dipper has swung overhead;
in an hour you will look up to rose-tinged
cirrus clouds. When I shut my eyes, I hear
waves unfurl, wake to cries of birds before
sunrise, recall the imprint of our bodies
in white sand; from the beach, water deepens
into teal blue in no time. Aqueous gold
ripples on the surfaces of waves, but when
you reach for it there, it is here, and
when you reach for it here, it vanishes.
The mind craves to make something perdurable
out of something as tenuous as candlelight,
something that becomes more and more itself
through vicissitude. When a selenographer
plots the moon’s seas, does he inscribe
a memory that can batter as well as renew?
We kindle into flame a firelight by which
we incandesce more and more of ourselves.
Inscribed in the motion of birth and death,
we poise, savor the resistance to move too soon.
In the impoverishment of memory, you listen
to a cricket crawl in a pipe below the sink
but cannot see it, finger a cracked vase
yet treasure its sliver of death. When you
reach out to touch a woman on her deathbed,
the heat of her skin is no longer a surprise:
eyes closed, absorbing oxygen through a tube,
she will never hate, love, sing, connive,
speak, stir again. In a barrio apartment,
you pull on a light: cockroaches flick
their forelegs and snap flat their forewings.
You listen to the drone of a refrigerator,
drips from faucets. In a Ketchikan bar,
a man trembles and recounts how a bear swiped
his right eye, how the eye ran like raw egg,
though you surmise he moves from bar to bar
to repeat his pain. You step out into drizzle:
the snow line has dropped to eighty feet
above the docks. Thoughts inch through
memory the way maggots inch through a cepe.
A candle undulates on the mantel; at the end
of winter, water in the pond is clear with
twig and leaf debris clumped at the bottom.
They yearn for a moment that clears the mind;
in the warm yellow light at their fingertips,
they sense what dies is cast into the molten
form of the moment, as prayers are tossed
into the molten cast of a bell: yellow,
this, hair, wet, shudder, shriek, torque, be.
Though a potter can remove with tongs a molten
bowl out of a kiln, plunge it into water,
they have nothing but a snake of words to
prove this moment when a chrysanthemum opens
in steaming broth in a black bowl; when it heats,
warms their hands; when they become aware
a pale green leaf is beginning to flare out;
apple tree beginning to bud; when a sliver
of moon begins to widen; when they quiver
and end this moment of stillness, begin
to stretch into another glistening stillness.
Tying a balloon at the gate to the zoo, he catches
the blink of a cashier before she rings up
another fee, hungers for the moment a turtle
slips into water. Inside, he pauses at a tank,
views nothing, puts his hands on glass; at once
a phalanx of piranhas veer and repel light.
He studies their glistening jaws, eyes, incisors,
turns to a peacock pacing back and forth
on the floorboards, scarlet ibises with folded wings.
A single loss can craze the mind with grief
and—meteor shower—hours days minutes seconds—
make us reach for white narcissi by the window
at sunrise. In the park, red and orange
oak leaves burn into transparency: is a moment
of death a seed? A friend once ignited fireworks
over a dry lake to tremble what expires
and what persists: streaming red gossamers,
yellow showers, violet chrysanthemums bursting
into gold into black air. Bending to tie a shoelace,
he observes pocked craters in the irregular asphalt.
In a few minutes the sky lightens so that
branches of the willow flare to the very twig.
The hiss when a molten bowl is plunged into water
is also the hiss when you ladle water onto rocks
in the sauna. It is not in the hoofprints of zebras
or in the shadows of oryxes, but in the scent of
a lynx by a goose pen. The warmth and aroma of wax
in this flickering room is not to be inscribed
on papyrus wrapped around a corpse, nor is it
currency to be burned into the next, fearless world.
It is when we true ourselves to the consequence
that we find the yellow lightning of our kiss.
Though we sit inscribed in a circle, we twist
and smell a wild fennel stalk in our hands.
Moose calves with dangling wet umbilical cords
struggle to keep up with their long-legged fast-
moving mothers. As we go up a series of wooden steps,
we gaze down, and, as large multicolored koi
leisurely swim in the pool below, one koi
flaps and shivers gold flecks onto the surface.
Clusters of wild irises shrivel in the field.
He tries to slide the ring off his mother’s
finger, but rigor mortis has set in; he soaps
her finger, swivels the ring, yanks it off.
I catch the motion with which a man tosses
water from a brush onto a setting cement curb,
while another trowels the cement to an olive shine.
We did not notice when rain stopped striking
the skylight but glance up at a crack that
runs through the glass. “Yum!” a twenty-year-old
exclaims, pours milk onto corn flakes, snot
smeared across his face, while his stepmother
convulses, breaks into sobs. We place hoops
around peonies so that growing buds will not bend
stalks to the ground. I look for swaying lines
of ants, but nothing is there; I survey irregular
white trunks of aspens, but nothing is there.
As that swivels into this, I thread a tiny
screw to fasten the bracelet around your wrist;
you pull back a wooden slat to open the gate.
Arthur Sze's most recent books are The
Redshifting Web: Poems 19701998 and The Silk Dragon,
a collection of translations from the Chinese. He directs the
creative writing program at the Institute for American Indian
Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Boston Review.