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Copper Canyon Press, $15 (paper)
“Only when the poem is free of false emotion and confusion will the passions come into perspective.” That’s Lu Chi on refinement. “Revelation never comes as a fern uncoiling / a frond in mist; it comes when I trip.” That’s Arthur Sze on the same. Despite the centuries between them, what Quipu shares with Lu Chi’s Wen Fu—an emphasis on craftsmanship, poise, and correct placement and timing of the perfect gesture—supplies a necessary counterbalance to its obsession with simultaneity and chaos, the fact that “though things are not yet in their places / the truth sears his fingertips.” Thus Quipu reads as a meditation on equanimity when events past and present threaten “the balance of a life.” The quipu, an assemblage of “colored, knotted strings” that “hang off a primary cord,” served as a system of accounting and data storage for the Incas and in ancient Asian cultures; here it serves Sze as metaphor for lyric composition: “the mind ties knots, and I / follow a series of short strings to a loose end.” Sze’s list-laden sequences capture the world’s manifold facts one by one, then through discursive commentary exact from them a sense not only of aesthetic order but of universal cause and effect: “because a circle opens in all directions // blossoming yellow forsythia is the form and pressure of the hour.” And if the poems enact a system of accounting, if “these synapsed words are not the things / themselves but, sizzling, point the way,” that the passions precede the poems makes them no less poignant. Sze’s mode of arrangement ensures that readers see deliberation in artfulness and thus experience such arrangements as mindful practice. Given that “A single loss can ravel the mind with grief / and—meteor shower—hours days minutes seconds— / make us reach for white narcissi by the window,” the poems’ dilating and contracting spatiotemporal scales render the world dizzying, a difficult site from which to write beauty, which is to say how moving Quipu’s elegance really is: “it leopards the body.”
Brian Teare, a 2020 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of six critically acclaimed books, most recently Companion Grasses, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and Doomstead Days, winner of the Four Quartets Prize. His honors include the Birittingham Prize and Lambda Literay and Publishing Triangle Awards, as well as fellowships from the NEA, the Pew Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.
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