Transfigurations

- 1950-

Though neither you nor I saw flowering pistachio trees
in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, though neither
you nor I saw the Tigris River stained with ink,
though we never heard a pistachio shell dehisce,
we have taken turns holding a panda as it munched
on bamboo leaves, and I know that rustle now.
I have awakened beside you and inhaled August
sunlight in your hair. I’ve listened to the scroll
and unscroll of your breath—dolphins arc along
the surface between white-capped waves; here,
years after we sifted yarrow and read from the Book
of Changes, I mark the dissolving hues in the west
as the sky brightens above overhanging willows.
The panda fidgets as it pushes a stalk farther
into its mouth. We step into a clearing with budding
chanterelles; and, though this space shrinks and
is obscured in the traffic of a day, here is the anchor
I drop into the depths of teal water. I gaze deeply
at the panda’s black patches around its eyes;
how did it evolve from carnivore to eater of bamboo?
So many transfigurations I will never fathom.
The arc of our lives is a brightening then dimming,
brightening then dimming—a woman catches
fireflies in an orchard with the swish of a net.
I pick an openmouthed pistachio from a bowl
and crack it apart: a hint of Assyria spills
into the alluvial fan of sunlight. I read spring in
autumn in the scroll of your breath; though
neither you nor I saw the completion of the Great Wall,
I wake to the unrepeatable contour of this breath.

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.