Sleepers

- 1950-

A black-chinned hummingbird lands 
on a metal wire and rests for five seconds; 
for five seconds, a pianist lowers his head 
and rests his hands on the keys; 

a man bathes where irrigation water 
forms a pool before it drains into the river;
a mechanic untwists a plug, and engine oil 
drains into a bucket; for five seconds, 

I smell peppermint through an open window,
recall where a wild leaf grazed your skin;
here touch comes before sight; holding you, 
I recall, across a canal, the sounds of men 

laying cuttlefish on ice at first light;
before first light, physical contact, 
our hearts beating, patter of female rain 
on the roof; as the hummingbird 

whirrs out of sight, the gears of a clock 
mesh at varying speeds; we hear 
a series of ostinato notes and are not tied
to our bodies’ weight on earth.

More by Arthur Sze

Slanting Light

Slanting light casts onto a stucco wall
the shadows of upwardly zigzagging plum branches.

I can see the thinning of branches to the very twig.
I have to sift what you say, what she thinks,

what he believes is genetic strength, what
they agree is inevitable. I have to sift this

quirky and lashing stillness of form to see myself,
even as I see laid out on a table for Death

an assortment of pomegranates and gourds.
And what if Death eats a few pomegranate seeds?

Does it insure a few years of pungent spring?
I see one gourd, yellow from midsection to top

and zucchini-green lower down, but
already the big orange gourd is gnawed black.

I have no idea why the one survives the killing nights.
I have to sift what you said, what I felt,

what you hoped, what I knew. I have to sift 
death as the stark light sifts the branches of the plum.

Spring Snow

A spring snow coincides with plum blossoms.
In a month, you will forget, then remember
when nine ravens perched in the elm sway in wind.

I will remember when I brake to a stop,
and a hubcap rolls through the intersection.
An angry man grinds pepper onto his salad;

it is how you nail a tin amulet ear
into the lintel. If, in deep emotion, we are
possessed by the idea of possession,

we can never lose to recover what is ours.
Sounds of an abacus are amplified and condensed
to resemble sounds of hail on a tin roof,

but mind opens to the smell of lightening.
Bodies were vaporized to shadows by intense heat;
in memory people outline bodies on walls.

Looking Back on the Muckleshoot Reservation from Galisteo Street, Santa Fe

The bow of a Muckleshoot canoe, blessed
with eagle feather and sprig of yellow cedar,
is launched into a bay. A girl watches
her mother fry venison slabs in a skillet—
drops of blood sizzle, evaporate. Because
a neighbor feeds them, they eat wordlessly;
the silence breaks when she occasionally
gags, reaches into her throat, pulls out hair.
Gone is the father, riled, arguing with his boss,
who drove to the shooting range after work;
gone, the accountant who embezzled funds,
displayed a pickup and proclaimed a winning
flush at the casino. You donate chicken soup
and clothes but never learn if they arrive
at the south end of the city. Your small
acts are sandpiper tracks in wet sand.
Newspapers, plastic containers, beer bottles
fill bins along the sloping one-way street.

Related Poems

Triple Sonnet for My Father’s Pet Goose, Pigeon Wars, and Daddy Issues

Lovers in cartoons get into swan boats
before declaring their undying love,
but I’m terrified because have you seen
the wedding footage of the swan eating
the bride’s white dress, chasing her down the pond,
and we live in such a scary world
that the bird poems really aren’t helping,
because what good do they really do?
But what about my father growing up
in Macau, in Hong Kong, across too many
boarding schools in Asia to count,
one day going home to his mother,
a goose arrives at his bedroom window,
like a sign from a higher being.

And when I’m twenty-three, in Singapore,
I’m telling this story to a man
double my age—we’re greeted by pigeons—
and no, I don’t have daddy issues,
I’m just pouring my heart out
because that goose was my dad’s best friend,
because my grandma ended up
cooking that goose, because the man I’m dating
understands these old-school-Chinese-stiff-
upper-lip-we’re-poor-so-I’m-sorry-son
situations of survival,
because this same man wants me to write
about his father, but I don’t have time
to be someone else’s biographer

when I’m thinking of how my father
made sure we always had a family dog,
a Buzzie to keep us warm, take out
for Italian ice and custard trips,
how during the Pennsylvania winters,
my father would bring lost birds inside
the house and feed them milk to keep warm,
how growing up, we’d go to the park
every weekend to feed the ducks,
and back to Singapore, when I look down
at the pigeons interrupting my date,
starting a brawl over scone crumbs
in the middle of the coffee shop,
I can’t help but just look down, laugh at them.

Peony

Why must I tell you this story, O little one
You’re just a bud-of-a-girl, who knows nothing

Now you are full-faced, bright as sun
Now you open your skirts pink, layered, brazen

Suffering is alchemy, change is God
Now you droop your head, heavy with rust

Sit, contemplate, what did Buddha say?
Old age, sickness, death, no one owns eternity            

Detach, detach, look away from the sun
Let your petals fall aimlessly                 

Don’t despair, little one, we are done
 

The Tree Sparrows

We suffer through blinding equatorial heat,
refusing to unfold the suspended bamboo shade 
nested by a pair of hardworking, cheerless sparrows.
We’ve watched them fly in-and-out of their double
entryways, dried grass, twigs clamped in their beaks.
They skip, nestle in their woodsy tunnel punctured
with light, we presume, not total darkness, their eggs
aglow like lunar orbs. What is a home? How easily 
it can be destroyed: the untying of traditional ropes,
pull, the scroll-unraveling. For want of a sweltering
living room to be thrown into relief by shadow.

The sunning couple perch open-winged, tube lofty
as in Aristophanes' city of birds, home made sturdy
by creature logic and faith that it will all remain afloat.