Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

Some notes on Quipu by Arthur Sze: string theory

Published by The Great American Pinup

Arthur Sze’s Quipu twines a personal imaginarium of imagery and metaphor and the impulse of language. He attempts to re-connect our basic human senses to the range of all possible human experience. He asks the reader to dial into the “haiku” simplicity of image drawn out of surprise. He asks the reader to enter into the complexities of experience as far ranging as cosmology, botany, and the origins of Chinese characters. Sze’s palette ranges so widely one wonders how any reader can keep up.

In part that desire to “keep up” enacts the antithesis of Sze’s aesthetic. “Keep up” with what he might ask? Sze doe not right poems that provide simple categorical resolutions. They are meant to be, as Sze insists (a la Duncan), “polysemous.” In his aesthetic, Sze constructs poems that in a very specific, architectural way seem to be made so that even the maker does not always know exactly what they mean—and if not that—how they operate.

What Sze intends may be hard to miss. The clarity of the writing leaves no doubt about what subjects he desires the reader to connect to. This does not mean that the meaning of his poems is easily accessible. My sense is that the feeling of his poems can only be apprehended through reading the specific poem. His poems are like a special meal cooked with the exact varietals in bloom—the flavor cannot be duplicated by recipe--the aroma and tastes are subject to that unique time and space.

In Sze the subject and objects invert, what becomes is what was--“that swivels into this.” The following is a litany of thematic imagery linking poem to poem in Sze’s Quipu. The links are radial. We see strings, and loops, and coiled barbed wire, crooked branches, flames lapping and spurting, waves licking, ankles crunching like mouse bones in a cat’s mouth.

The metaphors possess an unending quality: the winding trails, uncoiling ferns, water dripping into lava tubes, squiggly chalk lines opening rifts in the universe, twisted tendons, furled fireworks, snakes that slide, tadpoles wriggling like sperm, a calligrapher’s stroke like a stork leg, the ever thirsty acequias, time like a honeycomb.

And the images not only coil but they seem wrapped in time’s ribbons. The transverse dunes, tightened screws, the curl of cedar smoke, arcing elderberries, a curled embryo, a single blue unknotted cord, ripples on the surface of waves, a chrysanthemum unfolding in water, clusters of wild irises, ashes at the tip of incense, spun filaments of clouds, narwhal horns, eelgrass in tidal water.

Even the moments when the cords undo themselves, they will tie themselves back together. See the revolved polygons inside of circles, willow leaves on a skylight that become a school of minnows, sunlight streaming between the slats of a fence, plastic twine around the neck of a decomposing lamb, riffled water in waxing moonlight, silk unstrung in one continuous thread, glitter of snow, slanting drizzle, glistening jellyfish, the x of a turnstile, silence that accretes.

The mathematics of the intelligence at work in Sze's poems might otherwise seem to occlude the evocative or emotive powers of language. Yet he keeps the poems open, the reader may be brought to tears at the oddest possible angles as when a moth flutters against a screen, or as volvox floats on black water, or even as a slug slides down a railroad tie. Emotion is not lost at the expense of the connective tissue of the poems. Everything is a wavelength, and everything zig-zags.

The quipu, the winding or braiding of a cord, was used by the Peruvians as a form of counting. Were braided cords the origin of written language? In Chinese the earliest known characters contain the silk radical’s knotted cords. If language is a braided cord, in Sze a single word, such as a noun like “jaguar” might acts as an action, a pattern, a process, and an object of beauty—all simultaneously.

Sze’s poetry leads the reader into a world where nouns become verbs. Where states one usually considers stable or static are but superficial tapestries in a cosmic breeze. Consider the last line of the opening poem, Before Sunrise. Sze closes down the poem’s progression by dressing down our very, oh so frail, human frames, when he wakes “to human bones carved and strung into a loose apron.” The body itself, from the very first poem in Quipu is but a type of quipu.

But Sze is not interested in the macabre per se. His vision makes of the world a set of textures in experience that might only be revealed through close perception. A world apprehended as the result of spiritual study, or, especially, what contemplative silence can reveal to the prepared human being.

Consider the end of the poem Acanthus. After a brief meditation on memory and its interrelationship to his study of Greece, in particular, the Gulf of Lesbos, he concludes:

“You ache at how passion is a tangle
of silk in your hands, shut your eyes,
unstring the silk in one continuous thread.”

The fabric of one’s passions is the result of one continuous through line--unseen until unwound.

The poems unwind the fabric of experience in ways filled with aesthetic rewards. Sometimes the rewards are enlightening, at other times desperate with sadness, other times charged with the dazzle of duende.

Consider the self-reflexive closure of “The Angle of Reflection Equals the Angle of Incidence.” The title comes from the physical properties of light but the poem is about language. One should quickly reflect on Arthur’s affection for the Chinese Tradition. He will often reference, obliquely (and sometime directly) his studies. There is the proverb, “the daikon picker points the way with the daikon.” I have referenced this phrase several times before in previous discussions of Arthur’s work. It applies as aptly here where he adds:

“I recognize fractures in turtle plastrons,
glimpse the divinatory nature of language.
And as a lantern undulating on the surface
of a black pool is not the lantern itself,
so these synapsed words are not the things
themselves but, sizzling, point the way.”

The “divinatory nature of language” draws in Sze’s study of the I-Ching. The poems are aflutter with these types of references. One imagines not even Sze himself understands all he calls into being—but like a potter he forms the best vessel from the given clay that he can make. And then it is what it is, as Sze imagines in section 9 of his poem Didyma, “because a circle opens in all directions.”

Click here to read a detailed analysis of another poem, Syzygy, from Arthur Sze's book Quipu.

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