reviewed by Dan Magers
Arthur Sze’s book Quipu emphasizes how disparate experiences, thoughts, and ideas interconnect. These are not poems obsessed with intellectual or linguistic exercise, fusing together for that sake in itself. The earnestness of the tone makes clear that the poet feels the connections he identifies as very real and having an influence on his life. He quotes the definition of “quipu” from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “a device made of a main cord with smaller varicolored cords attached and knotted and used by the ancient Peruvians (as for calculating).” Sze fuses together ideas and imagery from nature, science, art, philosophy, history, human sexuality and behavior in a way that makes each necessary in the functioning of other parts of the poem. One might contend that while the composition of the poems is in keeping with the model of quipu, the function of the poems do not. For all of Sze’s attentiveness, there is not a lot of genuine calculating in the poems which, perhaps, Sze finished long ago.
Sze’s method of composition compares to that of a scientist. Both draw on observations to reach conclusions. In that, Sze is very apt. The poet is a constant observing machine. The poems are very reflective and sometimes quasi-mystical, but they are also very tactile and sensuous. The poems dart around from subjects, ideas, and images, making unexpected connections. In In the Living Room, the author draws the reader’s attention from a vertical Chinese scroll on the wall, made by “A Japanese calligrapher…in the 1890s”; the ceiling beams “from Las Trampas” and the “Penasco floorboards softened with lye” to “along the wall on a pedestal,” where “a gold-leafed/male and female join in sexual embrace.” He reflects how “hours earlier, my hands held your hips, your breasts touch my chest.” His eyes close and he “feel(s) how in the circumference of a circle the beginning and end have no end.”
His poems also encompass negative experiences, as in The Welt: beginning with an airy yearning for “a day marked like a Song tea bowl/with indented lip and hare’s-fur markings,” that image is suddenly juxtaposed with “two decomposing lambs,” which leads to a darker twist on the poem’s opening: “During firing, gravity pulls iron-oxide/slip down to form a hare’s-fur pattern/on the glaze surface.” He tells of the “stench,” and how he “saw pink plastic twine around the neck/of the mangled one by the post.”
While his poems are fairly straight-forward, with lines containing very brief narratives, or rather instances, it would be inaccurate to say the poems were about anything specific, as, say, maybe a poem that reflects on a singular act, like apple-picking in Frost. In Thermodynamics, one sentence demonstrates the variety and how Sze sees connections in it:
In Beijing a couple wanted to thank him for arranging financial sponsorship of their son in America; under the table, she rubbed her leg against his and whispered she had tomorrow off from work; but tomorrow, lust, betrayal, delight, yesterday, ardor, scorn, forgiveness are music from empty holes, and you wonder if the haphazard course of a life follows a fundamental equations in thermodynamics.
The poems eschew straight narrative, but are still concrete enough in their individual images and ideas. There is nothing as obscure as the shifting web of phrases in Ashbery’s poems, and almost no syntax manipulation found in language poetry. While the poems are modeled after the quipu, the poems are gainfully examined as composed through intellectual montage. The poems are not strikingly cinematic, and do not use the vocabulary of film in any other significant way. And yet events and reflections, introduced as whole thoughts or questions in the poems (as opposed to more elliptical, page-bound uses) come together to create impressions that are not contained in any one line or image. There are moments where this continuity is more like traditional stream-of-consciousness, where one image leads the poet to another, but often there is no traditional transition, except for a “cut.” The use of montage in film was originally used to disrupt the continuity of narrative, Sze’s poems in Quipu are less obscure than the compositional method might lead one to believe. The poems go lithely through time and space, the point of view shifting between poems and sometimes within a poem, but perhaps what causes this unexpected continuity (or narrative flow) is the fact that every experience, every pronoun, seems to point back to Sze himself.
The book shows such variety, and yet the poems feel somehow closed in. That is not to say hermetic, or even solitary, but maybe too self-assured, and while they show concern and affection, and dart around in different areas, they never quite give genuine surprise. It is not as if poets were not ever guilty of talking about themselves. It seems pretty clear that each observation or reflection collected has, at one time, meant a good deal to Sze, perhaps bringing about a small epiphany. However, as one continues reading, the poems’ happy moments, sad moments, harsh moments, erotic moments, historical, scientific and philosophical observations all begin to point in the same direction over and over. If the book then should be considered confessional, there is not enough scrutiny of the self to register sustained surprise for the reader. The epiphanies become the same. Everything points back to the same conclusions by the poet. Juxtapositions become similar. No new intellectual, emotional, or psychological conclusions get discovered in the poems. So while Sze acknowledges the differences that things contain, and in fact cherishes them, a downside of a of this interconnectedness of places, times, and events is that all things in Sze’s path become swallowed up. The interconnectedness becomes interchangeable.
Montage used properly has images clash to generate new meanings. Quipu, while for ordering, is also for calculating. Scientists uses their data to challenge their hypotheses. Here, Sze splices together to make his preconceived point. And the preponderance of all the “he recalls” “he remembers” “he wanders” make the poems more like notebook entries, not rigorous interrogation of data. Poetry is not in the truth business, but it can refresh our view of the world. In these poems there is no tension, and not really conflict. Rhetorical questions, which are used frequently, fare badly. The irony here is that rhetorical questions make assertions that are not specifically stated. The lack of genuine scrutiny or self doubt in the poems make the questions directionless. “Who probes/the ice crystals below the moon’s surface?” “Who cares that the Eta Carinae Nebula is about/9,000 light-years distant?” “Is an infinitesimal seed at the cross-/sectional center of the cosmos?” Um…yes.
A final, delicate issue is manifested out of Sze’s emotional commitment (and lack of detachment) in his poems, which sometimes takes him into cornball country. This is no deal-breaker (two enthusiastic, yet humorless egoists are Wordsworth and Whitman), but there are also risks. More problematically, these awkward moments are often found where Sze is experimenting with words the most. “Earthshine,” and “Earthstar,” are real words that mean real things, but coupled with phrases like “it leopards the body” (which is repeated in a poem nine times) or “fishhook joy,” the poems take on an atavistic, new age-y quality that that veers from Sze’s otherwise sophisticated observations. Though, of course, that could be looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Maybe one should admire the self-confidence of a man who writes, “I sizzle when I remember how we first kissed…and as flying/geese cast shadows on water, and water reflects/the light, a joy stretches and stretches/ into the infinite.” If one is so uncomfortable with such naked sensitivity, perhaps it more reflects on the reader, how he may hate himself.
— Daniel Magers