Three Poems, by Arthur Sze

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
“Catalpa 29th August 2014,” a unique cyanotype triptych by Tom Fels © The artist. Courtesy Atlas Gallery, London

“Catalpa 29th August 2014,” a unique cyanotype triptych by Tom Fels © The artist. Courtesy Atlas Gallery, London


Deer raise their ears, as he steps on gravel, then lower their heads
and browse on grass, as he moves beyond them toward the street.
He does not know why the catalpa tree is the first to shed leaves,
the last to leaf, but when he stops to gaze up at the bare branches,
the sky’s a surface of a pond starting to freeze. He has tried and
failed, tried and failed all summer; now the garden’s overgrown
with weeds; another apricot twig snaps when bent; after a rat
burrowed into the outdoor sofa, he had it hauled to the dump. In
the dark, a gleaming flatbed truck transports large cylinders of
waste down a mesa, along city limits, to an underground salt bed.
At 3 am, while he sleeps, “Holy shit!” erupts out a doorway;
flames rise in an apartment complex, and alarms sound.

Reddening pear leaves—
opening spigots, he drains
the last drops from tanks—


Passing an accordion player in the street,
I mark a building with names and dates
carved into the fitted blocks of a wall

whose former basement prison is open
to visitors. In the adjacent park,
two women greet each other and hug.

The smoke of the past seeps into my clothes;
when an invisible cloud of radioactive dust
settled on spruce and birch forests,

foragers picked and dined on mushrooms
only to wake, convulse, die.
As I walk over a bridge, spot

empty picture frames dangling below,
a bench swing suspended over rushing water,
I wonder, what is the swing of destiny?

In this city armies have marched through,
from the east, from the west, from the east,
I sip a salty mineral water laced

with calcium, magnesium, sulfates,
while others fill bottles, chug.
Standing in a district that declares itself

a republic inside a city, whose last article
of Dada constitution says, Do not surrender,
I swing out of myself on invisible wings.

winter solstice

My shadow lengthens in the driveway—
this morning I was going to repair
the slanting posts to that split-rail fence;
instead I scanned through binoculars

for an indigo bunting—now a gathering
darkness constricts what I can do;
in the little daylight left, I grieve
that I attended to things that had

no sliver of success: if I spotted
a bunting at a feeder, would it have—
blue, blue deepening then rising
into quetzal green—flared me

before it vanished? When I stop luring
a flash of success, misfortune
will stop pursuing me; now I stand
near a bonfire in the street, warming

my hands and face, but my feet
in boots numb; I think, no, I should say
I am thought; the yellow sunlight
grows hair, the black leopard

of night cracks a fibula in its maw;
and when the North Pole reaches
its farthest point, what if that distance
seizes and sizzles into a habit of mind?

 is the author, most recently, of The Glass Constellation:
New and Collected Poems, which was published last year by Copper Canyon Press.

More from