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Review-a-Day
The Virginia Quarterly Review
Sunday, July 30th, 2006
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Quipu (05 Edition)

by Arthur Sze

Domestic Life and Erotic Love

A review by Lilah Hegnauer

In Quipu, Arthur Sze's eighth collection of poetry, the focus on various disciplines -- nature, philosophy, history, science, anthropology -- never seems gimmicky or trite. The focus never forces a metaphor or draws false attention to a topic in order to make new some old poetic trick. Sze's focus on the world outside of poetry seems purposeful, due to a genuine interest in and knowledge of the topic. Take the lines from "Didyma," (which a note at the end tells us is the site of a Greek oracular sanctuary in Asia Minor which includes the remains of a temple of Apollo):

You walk up the steps and find a double peristyle
with a deep entrance porch filled with columns;
at the base of the columns is an octagonal set
of carved dragons, mermaids, and palmettes.
You turn, stride down a dark and narrow vaulted ramp
that emerges with blinding light into a large hall
open to the sky; a continuous frieze on three walls
has a central acanthus flanked by griffins and lyres.

Sze's detail comes always in the form of the rich and varied language of other places, times, obsessions, and professions -- but he refines the details in such a way as to make them stand firmly in the lines of his own poetry. As far as his language reaches, it never becomes weak.

In the opening page of the book, Sze (via Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) provides for his readers a definition of the word quipu: "a device made of a main cord with smaller varicolored cords attached and knotted and used by the ancient Peruvians (as for calculating)." And certainly Gary Urton's gorgeous cover photo of a quipu in various browns, reds, and golds does much to help us visualize this extended metaphor. Readers come to expect, then, that many poems in the book will be threaded and knotted and feeding into one another. What comes as a disappointment, then, is the repeated use of a certain phrase or image that does too much work for the reader and doesn't allow for the spontaneous and rewarding sensation of finding our own way through Sze's Quipu. For example, the permutations of the phrase "I am shocked": "am startled," "he is startled," "I start," "stunned," "I am amazed" all serve to limit, rather than tighten the direction of the book.

Still, in the end, Sze is a master of detail. In "The Angle of Reflection Equals the Angle of Incidence," he writes:
Quinoa simmers in a pot; the aroma of cilantro
on swordfish; the cusp of spring when you

lean your head on my shoulder. Orange crocuses
in the backyard form a line. Once is a scorched site;

we stoop in the grass, finger twelve keys with

interconnected rings on a swiveling yin-yang coin,
dangle them from the gate, but no one claims them.

The range in emotion, language, and theme -- disembodied at times from logical time and space -- Sze is able to achieve in the span of one sentence makes Quipu a book worth reading, studying, and admiring for its undeniable fluidity and explosiveness that comes from the mind looping back over itself in various and unpredictable ways.


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