On Poetry and Water

In the first of our essays inspired by the Pulitzer Foundation's Water Exhibition, the poet finds inspiration in Roni Horn's art and the I Ching.
"If water is beginningless beginning and endless end, if water has no shape of its own but can take any shape, it has infinite possibility." Arthur Sze finds a connection between poetry and water.
In 2007 the Poetry Foundation and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts collaborated to bring poets together in conversation with works of art based on the Pulitzer Foundation's Water exhibition. John Yau served as a curator for this collaboration. He invited poets Cole Swensen, Andrew Joron, and Arthur Sze to reflect on and react to artists including Roni Horn, Cy Twombly, Max Beckmann, Henri Matisse.

In China, water is one of the five elements and symbolizes yin, the primeval female principle. In the I Ching, or Book of Changes,

The Pulitzer building. Architect: Tadao Ando. Photo: Robert Pettus. Copyright: The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.
the trigram for water is a set of stacked lines composed of a broken line at the bottom, a solid line, then a broken line. It is generated through a divination process that incorporates chance. In this cosmology, water is not an assemblage but, rather, a force—“Water flows to what is wet.” The water trigram helps to highlight that everything is in motion, and that each moment is unique.

While the worldview of the I Ching appears compatible with Heraclitus’s assertion “You cannot step twice into the same river,” it diverges in its larger context. Where Heraclitus conceives of a Logos that shapes the phenomenal world, the I Ching reveals 64 archetypal patterns that endlessly flow through each other. Where a Western viewer might look at the elements constituting a moment as chance, an Eastern viewer might apprehend that moment as fate.

If we look at Heraclitus’s predecessor, Thales, his central assertions are “The first principle and basic nature of all things is water” and “The earth rests upon water.” With our knowledge of biology and earth science, it is easy to accept the first, but the latter may appear whimsical. Yet, if one embraces that idea, one can more fully experience the precarious splendor of existence and discover that “Water is the koan of water.”

If water is beginningless beginning and endless end, if water has no shape of its own but can take any shape, it has infinite possibility. In her notes to the Pulitzer Museum, Roni Horn remarks that her art “is literally the idea of a finite thing having an infinite range of appearance or expression.” Transpose this assertion into the arena of language, and one has recursive possibilities: with a finite number of words, one can create infinite variety.


by Arthur Sze

Corpses push up through thawing permafrost,

as I scrape salmon skin off a pan at the sink;
on the porch, motes in slanting yellow light

undulate in air. Is Venus at dusk as luminous
as Venus at dawn? Yesterday I was about to

seal a borax capsule angled up from the bottom

of a decaying exterior jamb when I glimpsed
jagged ice floating in a bay. Naval sonar

slices through whales, even as a portion
of male dorsal fin is served to the captain

of an umiak. Stopped in traffic, he swings from

a chairlift, gazes down at scarlet paintbrush.
Moistening an envelope before sealing it,

I recall the slight noise you made when I
grazed your shoulder. When a frost wiped out

the chalk-blue flowering plant by the door,

I watered until it revived from the roots.
The song of a knife sharpener in an alley

passes through the mind of a microbiologist
before he undergoes anesthesia for surgery.

The first night of autumn has singed

bell peppers by the fence, while budding
chamisa stalks in the courtyard bend to ground.

Observing people conversing at a nearby table,
he visualizes the momentary convergence

and divergence of lines passing through a point.

The wisteria along the porch never blooms;
a praying mantis on the wood floor sips water

from a dog bowl. Laughter from upstairs echoes
downstairs as teenage girls compare bra sizes.

An ex-army officer turned critic frets

over the composition of a search committee,
snickers and disparages rival candidates.

A welder, who turns away for a few seconds
to gaze at the Sangre de Cristos, detects a line

of trucks backed up on an international overpass

where exhaust spews onto houses below.
The day may be called One Toothroad or Six Thunderpain,

but the naming of a day will not transform it,
nor will the mathematics of time halt.

An imprint of ginkgo leaf—fan-shaped, slightly

thickened, slightly wavy on broad edge, two-
lobed, with forking parallel veins but no

midvein—in a slab of coal is momentary beauty,
while ginkgos along a street dropping gold

leaves are mindless beauty of the quotidian.

Once thought to be extinct, the gingko was
discovered in Himalayan monasteries and

propagated back into the world. Although I
cannot save a grasshopper singed by frost

trying to warm itself on a sunlit walkway,

I ponder shadows of budding pink and orange
bougainvilleas on a wall. As masons level sand,

lay bricks in horizontal then vertical pairs,
we construct a ground to render a space

our own. As light from a partial lunar eclipse

diffuses down skylight walls, we rock and
sluice, rock and sluice, fingertips fanned

to fanned fingertips, debouch into plentitude.
Venus vanishes in a brightening sky:

the diamond ring of a solar eclipse persists.

You did not have to fly to Zimbabwe in June 2001
to experience it. The day recalls Thirteen Death

and One Deer when an end slips into a beginning.
I recall mating butterflies with red dots on wings,

the bow of a long liner thudding on waves,

crescendo of water beginning to boil in a kettle,
echoes of humpback whales. In silence dancers

concentrate on movements on stage; lilacs bud
by a gate. As bits of consciousness constellate,

I rouse to a 3 a.m. December rain on the skylight.

A woman sweeps glass shards in a driveway,
oblivious to elm branches reflected on windshields

of passing cars. Juniper crackles in the fireplace;
whale flukes break the water as it dives.

The path of totality is not marked by

a shadow hurtling across the earth’s surface
at three thousand kilometers per hour.

Our eyelashes attune to each other.
At the mouth of an arroyo, a lamb skull

and ribcage bleach in the sand; tufts

of fleece caught on barbed wire vanish.
The Shang carved characters in the skulls

of their enemies, but what transpired here?
You do not need to steep turtle shells

in blood to prognosticate clouds. Someone

dumps a refrigerator upstream in the riverbed
while you admire the yellow blossoms of

a golden rain tree. A woman weeds, sniffs
fragrance from a line of onions in her garden;

you scramble an egg, sip oolong tea.

The continuous bifurcates into the segmented
as the broken extends. Someone steals

a newspaper while we snooze. A tiger
swallowtail lands on a patio columbine;

a single agaric breaks soil by a hollyhock.

Pushing aside branches of Russian olives
to approach the Pojoaque River, we spot

a splatter of flicker feathers in the dirt.
Here chance and fate enmesh.

Here I hold a black bowl rinsed with tea,

savor the warmth at my fingertips,
aroma of emptiness. We rock back and forth,

back and forth on water. Fins of spinner
dolphins break the waves; a whale spouts

to the north-northwest. What is not impelled?

Yellow hibiscus, zodiac, hair brush;
barbed wire, smog, snowflake--when I still

my eyes, the moments dilate. Rain darkens
gravel in the courtyard; shriveled apples

on branches are weightless against dawn.

"Chrysalis", by Arthur Sze, will appear in the forthcoming collection, The Ginkgo Light, to be published by Copper Canyon Press in June, 2009. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Source: The Ginkgo Light (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).

Originally Published: October 15th, 2008

Arthur Sze was born in New York City in 1950, and educated at the University of California-Berkeley. Known for his difficult, meticulous poems, Sze’s work has been described as the “intersection of Taoist contemplation, Zen rock gardens and postmodern experimentation” by the critic John Tritica. The poet Dana Levin described...