Panicle by Gillian Sze
Gillian Sze’s fifth poetry collection takes its name from a botanical term for a multibranched cluster of flowers. The book reflects this idea of sprawling, multifaceted growth in rich, innovative poems, exploring the concepts of transmission and communication by reflecting on topics such as personal relationships, calligraphy, visual arts, and cinema, in forms that range from prose pieces to experimental sonnets. Panicle is a book fiercely interested in the connections, often unexpected, between high and low culture, referencing Eastern and Western literary authorities and the ancient and modern worlds. In this, the collection reminds me somewhat of Elana Wolff’s most recent title, Everything Reminds You of Something Else (Guernica Editions, 2017), an eclectic book that, like Sze’s, unites seemingly disparate subjects and speakers with a few common threads. Sze’s panicle-like method is illustrated early in “Nocturne,” where the speaker’s thought process drifts from the fleeting thought of lupines to an anecdote to the memory of a photo, finishing up with an original aphorism that pulls the distinct elements in the poem together and returns to the thought of lupines: Desire is God’s fingerprint, the pyro that sets it all ablaze as I lie here, thinking of lupines, watched by the hidden wolf. These lines suggest a certain reverence and awe that continue throughout the collection, which is divided into four sections: “Underway,” “Stagings,” “Guillemets,” and “Panicle.” The last two sections comprise long sequences; the first is a poetic response to Roland Giguère’s chapbook Pouvoir du Noir (1966), which
is accompanied with artwork by Jessica Hiemstra, while the second, subtitled “A draft for two seasons,” is a long poem in sections that depict distinct scenes. Here, Sze makes good use of the descriptive skills illustrated earlier in the book in pieces like “Staging Pairs; Or, Tableaux Vivants.” In reading the section “Panicle,” I found myself pausing to examine and admire the precision with which Sze links physical description to the speaker’s emotional experience, as when she describes the tide in a cove:
Its incessancy grows until foam gathers around my ankles. A wilful frailty washes and breaks over my feet.
It continues on for hours, becomes familiar and intimate with my longing.
Save for a small redundancy (“continues on”), the passage is concise and limpid. Here the speaker explicitly references the emotion that underlies the whole poem. Like an extension of the awe that runs throughout the collection, the longing expressed in “Panicle” suggests the position of the speaker in relation to her world: reverent, she observes, she reaches out, and “ahead, / where our gaze meets the sky” she can just see “a small gasp / / a small ah.”