Quipu by Arthur Sze

In Arthur Sze’s previous collection, The Redshifting Web, one section of a poem is a catalogue of 30 endangered species:

Deltoid spurge,
red wolf,
ocelot,
green-blossom pearlymussel,
razorback sucker,
wireweed, […]

That’s all it does.

Years ago, I asked Sze how he crafted that list (initially much larger than 30-some). He smiled, shrugged, and said something about trial and error, feeling it through, patience.

This sort of shruggish interiority is exactly what pisses people off about poetry, and I can’t entirely blame them, as I have little articulation of how/why Sze’s work works. But for me, somehow, it does, over and over and over.

Quipu, made of spun and knotted cords, is an Incan “system of record keeping, calculation, and, possibly narratives.” Similarly, the classic Sze poem is a sequenced catalog of images, questions, memories, quotations, imperatives, statistics, names, and sensations, often titled after some natural, cultural, or spiritual phenomena, a cue for how the sections interplay.

But if, as he admits, “Once you begin, / the branching is endless”, how does a reader keep up? What makes these edited transcripts of consciousness compelling? Part is the startling immediacy, the liveness, the devotion to the sensual and memorial now; few poets are as driven by concrete details and the rhythms of thought as Sze, an almost wholly descriptive poet, seemingly obsessed with recording the internal/external worlds.

It is this vigilant habit of mind — antennae always up for the correspondence between the plant and animal world and that of human consciousness — that continues to surprise me. The cosmic and the metaphysical are not grand shinings, but accidents that always happen: “Revelation never comes as a fern uncoiling / a frond in mist; it comes when I trip on a root,/slap a mosquito on my arm.” Later, in a similar moment, “As a red snake snags its epidermis, the mind snags, / molts from inside out.” The phenomenology of his work is both pure wonder (such as the child “happy to tilt sand / from her yellow shovel into a blue pail”) and a trigger for memory: “When a car rushes by on a wet road, / he hears a laborer throw sand against a tilted screen / and realizes 23 years ago he threw / sand against a tilted screen”.

Sze’s work is as much a study of rhetoric as an exercise in mindfulness, moving deliberately and hypnotically through a variety of organizing principles. Parts of a poem will exclusively use anaphora (15 straight lines beginning with “because”), epiphora (four straight lines ending with “against a black background”), imagist sentence fragments, questions (“What blooms as briefly as scarlet gaura in sandy soil? […] What hides in the wave of a day?”), imperatives (“say crumpled white papers ripple then burst into yellow twists of flame; / say parallel lines touch in the infinite; / say peel”). And then this curiosity: 42 of the 58 poems/sections are either 18 or 20 lines long.

He’ll make abstract nouns concrete, turn nouns and adjectives into verbs, pronouncing “loss salamanders the body, lagoons the mind”, noting how “red numbers on the clock incarnadine the time”, asking “How incandescent is a grief? […] Where is a passion that orchids the body?” When we reach the erotic chant in “Didyma” — “You yearn for the ocean spray to quicken your eyes, / yearn for the woman you love to sway and rock. / When she sways and rocks, you sway and rock. / When you sway and rock, she sways and rocks” — it is as if all speech becomes action, all thought becomes thing.

A brick-by-brick visionary, modestly accumulating minute details that make up an overpowering unity, Sze has that rare Blakean range from the infinite to the particular: “As spokes to a hub, the very far converges / to the very near.” There are narratives within the poems — a mother’s death, a child’s birth — but I’m glad to be immersed in a kind of reading that is more empirical than expository. Sze is ultimately concerned with the most primary of all relationships: that between the mind and the world. We would do well, on both fronts, if more of us read this most disciplined, innovative, and wakeful poet.

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