Prose from Poetry Magazine

Silk, the Universe, Language, the Heart

The poetry of parts of speech.
Translated by Susanna Nied

“Silken, rummet, sproget, hjertet,” 1992

Silk is a noun. All nouns are very lonely. They’re like crystals, each enclosing its own little piece of our knowledge about the world. But examine them thoroughly, in all their degrees of transparency, and sooner or later they’ll reveal their knowledge. Say the word silk, and it vanishes with the sound, but your senses, your memory and knowledge cast back an echo. Write it on a piece of paper, and it stays there, unmoving, but your thoughts and feelings are already on their way to the farthest corners of the world. That’s what I mean about the loneliness of nouns; each one has to be self-contained, as if it were the only word that existed. As if silk were the only word, and is therefore able at any time to awaken our encapsuled knowledge not only of silk, but of the world itself. Even of forgetting. Just try to forget the word silk, and you’ll be reminded of it next time you see the summer sky, a flower petal, or the membrane between two muscles in a butchered chicken.

I found silk in the writings of Lu Chi, in his Ars Poetica. He was born in China in 261 ad and executed, age forty-two, in 303 ad. Like his father and grandfather, he held a high military rank, but he was summarily executed after a violent battle by the Yangtze River, when he lost so many soldiers that their corpses blocked the river’s flow. For ten years of his short life he had lived in seclusion, immersed in studies. He left behind three hundred poems and essays, among them a little book about the art of writing, where I found silk.

“In a single meter of silk, the infinite universe exists.” That’s what Lu Chi writes. He writes the Chinese word for silk, paints the world with his brush, as he must have done so often, on a piece of silk. 
I think I can see him sitting there, his brush dipped in ink but still only partly lifted, listening within himself, while the only thing 
visible to his inward-turned gaze is the silk, the emptiness and boundlessness, the infinite universe, from which he pulls in his perspective at the moment that he lifts the brush and writes the word silk.

Maybe the silk was blue. All adjectives are very helpless. They never really have much substance. Day after day, they have to cling to all the nouns they can find. So blue always has to cling to the sky, to the iris of the eye, to chicory, bluebells, and copper sulfate, to the reflection of the sky in lakes and seas. It would be the same if the silk were white. Then white would have had to cling to snow and rice, to lilies and pearls and cooked fish, to stars and teeth. And now the silk, white or blue, with the help of these helpless adjectives, has already become able to leave its aloneness as a noun, and is on its way toward snow or the sky, chicory or the pearl, and further on into the infinite. Or else the infinite is on its way into the silk. Maybe I should say the apparently infinite. Or does the infinite already encompass the apparently infinite? For instance, the longest silk thread in the world could never be called apparently infinite if the concept of infinity didn’t already exist.

Lu Chi must have known that, because he had known silk all his life. His family was very well off and owned large rice fields and mulberry groves near the Yangtze delta, and bamboo groves in the hill country by Lake Hangzhou. Of course Lu Chi could easily have written the word silk on silk without thinking of the silk moth; but often enough he probably thought of it, and maybe especially of its larva, the silkworm, which lives on mulberry leaves, and of its silken web, where it pupates in a small cocoon. The outer part is densely matted, the inner part almost parchment-like, the middle part best of all for silk production, but it turns out to be one continuous silk thread approximately 4,000 meters long. So maybe Lu Chi never could write the word silk without thinking of the 4,000 meters of silk thread inside every single cocoon. Summer after summer, he saw silkworms by the thousands in the mulberry groves, transforming their small bites of mulberry leaves into cloaks of apparently infinite silk thread. Apparently infinite, or infinite? Maybe Lu Chi just told himself that the apparently infinite is what looks like infinity would look, if infinity could be seen. Or maybe he thought that infinity not only encompasses the apparently infinite, but that it’s also so infinite that it too is encompassed within its own apparency, so that at the moment when the silk thread was shuttling back and forth across the loom, he truly was able to see infinity woven into every single meter of silk.

But maybe Lu Chi didn’t use adverbs at all. Maybe the parts of speech that we call adverbs don’t even exist in Chinese. I could look it up. But ultimately it’s beside the point for my issues here. I should simply avoid adverbs. As far as possible. But adverbs are quite strong willed. And fairly insistent. They always find a way in. Like apparently, for example. It absolutely had to position itself before the adjective 
infinite. Regrettably, when with no problem at all it could have put 
itself in front of so many other adjectives. Apparently alone, apparently helpless, apparently motionless. But right is right. It does seem that the space in front of infinite is glaringly empty, and there aren’t very many adverbs that want to position themselves there. Not quite infinite, or rather infinite, or very infinite. Not even insanely infinite or just unusually infinite. Maybe constantly infinite. But apparently got there first. Apparently infinite. And like all other adverbs, it wants to take control, weigh values, pronounce judgments. So that nouns and adjectives can barely manage to be alone together and move about on their own. Just look at the quote from Lu Chi. Adverbs would have ruined everything: “In a single meter of silk the apparently infinite universe exists.” That’s not how silk should be treated. Especially not by Lu Chi, who trusts his own and others’ capacity to conceptualize.

If we think we can cast the shadow of logical questions over Lu Chi’s silk sentence, if we flatly think that what he writes about silk and the universe is wrong, or if we reduce it to a so-called poetic metaphor, then we haven’t understood Lu Chi. According to Lu Chi, logical questions have nothing to do with poetry. The language of poetry is infinite, but the language of logic is only apparently infinite. All in all, language is prelogical, while logic is a specialty with a limited range. A very useful specialty that lets us speak objectively about what we call an objective world. But also a very dangerous specialty, because we clearly have a tendency to confuse this objective world with the world itself. Yet Lu Chi doesn’t let himself be fooled into making language less than the reality it’s connected to. Language can’t be separated from the world without separating the world from itself. That’s why Lu Chi answers, even before these predictable questions are asked, by presenting his silk sentence in conjunction with another sentence, a language sentence: “In a single meter of silk, the infinite universe exists; language is a Great Flood from a small corner of the heart.” Silk, the universe, language, and the heart — he links them by creating two parallel clauses that flow into each other and unite only when they have reached far beyond our field of vision.

Lu Chi’s whole book consists, for the most part, of these parallel structures, in two-line stanzas that rhyme, but that don’t function as formal couplets, because each individual line is irregular, as in prose poems. This specific form is called fu in Chinese. Earlier, the fu form was used for long narrative poems about historical events or for praise poems to royals and other leaders. But Lu Chi renovated the fu form by using it in his Ars Poetica. In fact, the word makes up half the title of his book, Wen Fu. It’s not an outwardly prepossessing book. Around thirty pages, with twenty-one sections whose concise titles highlight what matters most when poets work with words. The sections deal with simple but very complex things like how to begin and how to choose words, or with harmony, with originality, with fear, with inspiration, or with how to find a form; and Lu Chi even presents a direct overview of existing forms, calling one section simply “Catalog of Genres.” Despite this single-minded concentration on the practice of writing, silk, the universe, language, and the heart are there too in numerous sections, woven together in a living pattern. A pattern that is ceaselessly created and transformed, as things arise consecutively with words. So the world, which once came into being on its own, and which via human beings let words come into being, now comes into further being in the poem, into an awareness of itself, of its own origin and its ongoing existence.

All verbs are very agreeable. They come into being on their own whenever there’s movement. They move and let themselves be moved. They keep everything in motion, including themselves. They shift, change their identities, and undo every noun’s loneliness for a while. They’re always wandering around, and they’re always thrusting themselves forward to ask, investigate, and specify things, and to come up with new possibilities. So all verbs are very open and multiply very easily. In countless variations, they express the verb to be. A few verbs do keep more or less completely to themselves. For example, shall, can, must, and will keep to themselves, outside verbs’ normal interchangeability. They function as constant markers of sorts, occasionally stepping in to give verbs a push in the right direction. But on the whole, verbs fluctuate so much that one is tempted to say the whole course of language is the course of verbs. It’s due in large part to verbs that language becomes a Great Flood, a story that deluges everything. This total deluge that from a small corner of the heart becomes language, this silk that contains the infinite universe, this ceaseless streaming back and forth between consciousness and vision is unthinkable without the energy of verbs, united in the verb to be. Which makes it possible simultaneously to differentiate and to not differentiate between what is in what. Language is in the heart, which is in language. The universe is in silk, which is in the universe.

In Wen Fu, Lu Chi tries to grasp this mysterious miracle play as the natural phenomenon that it is. Significantly, he tries to grasp it by using the word wen. In Chinese, wen is one of the oldest words of all, at least 3,000 years old, and even that far back, when people were casting oracle bones onto black stones so they could shine into the universe as letters, wen meant “art,” in the form either of literature or of sculpture. Etymologically, at its most basic, wen simply means “design” or “structure,” a structure where meaning and form are so indissolubly bound together that one is inconceivable without the other, no form without meaning, and no meaning without form. This is why wen also means “to write,” as the most natural way to express the deepest part of consciousness, the center, expressed in a Chinese character that blends “heart” and “mind.” So Lu Chi’s use of the word wen gains a multitude of meanings. It’s only on the surface that it means “literature”; in reality it also means “responsibility,” including a responsibility to tell the truth, which can be defined along the lines of calling things by their true names.

If we call things by their true names, that doesn’t mean that the names are being used to represent the things, and it doesn’t mean that language mimics reality as a thing that is separate from language. Rather, a kind of threshold condition arises, where language and the world express themselves with the help of each other. The world, with its natural extension in language, comes to a consciousness of itself; and language, with its background in the world, becomes a world in itself, a world steadily unfolding further. That’s why it can be said that by writing poetry, we’re trying to produce something that we ourselves are already a product of. The heart, which from its own small corner overflows with all sorts of random occurrences gathered during a lifetime of heartbeats, perhaps trying to recognize an order in it all before it stops beating; and silk, which in its interwoven synthesis of nature and culture plays with an empty space so utterly newly created and full of possibility that it can take in the universe and encompass it, work it in on itself like a Möbius strip and let it stay in that unfathomable flux between outside and inside; these concepts and their relationship — silk, the universe, language, and the heart — would be impossible for us to talk about if all we could use were nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Or, more accurately, our use of all these very lonely, helpless, strong-willed, and agreeable words would be impossible if they weren’t anchored into all the comparisons and 
relationships that the world consists of, discreetly expressed by nearly invisible prepositions, which we best can love by using them as precisely as possible.

All prepositions are nearly invisible. They bear language up in the same way that outer space bears planets up. In their limited numbers, up, down, out, in, over, under, etc. keep our consciousness in the same kind of motion that the world is in. They place all nouns in relationship to each other and mutely assure us that we’re borne up in advance in the world by an inexhaustibly huge, ever-present foundation of comparisons. At one time I immersed myself in the work of Danish linguistics expert Viggo Brøndal, who wrote, among other things, a book called A Theory of Prepositions. There he tries to systematize prepositions to reflect the idea that the relationships they refer to in language are already in place in the world that gives rise to language. So he divides the relationships into categories with names like symmetry, transitivity, continuity, connectivity, variability, extension, integrity, and universality, arranged in a taxonomy of increasing complexity. In the concluding section, on universality, he writes:

The most wide-ranging synthesis would ultimately encompass all zones and degrees of relationship: abstract, concrete, and complex; primary and secondary; central and peripheral. That kind of total relationship must, in keeping with its nature, exist at the boundaries of thought; as an expression of the quality of experience, it must be of almost mystical character.
— Tr. by Susanna Nied

What is the source of this mystical character? Maybe it’s that the forms already exist in the world. A tree exists in its tree-configuration, and so my life too, or my whole family’s lives, can take on that configuration. But not as a resemblance; more nearly as a form that’s the same. And one that also could be the form of a poem. And here, forms must be considered not as static, but as ongoing processes, occasionally made clear, also in an interplay with our sensory systems. When forms are considered in that way, more similarities than differences emerge in a comparison of cells’ chemical workings to support the body as a form, and words’ workings to support the world as a poem. The word has, in principle, the same chemistry that’s needed to set the process of crystallization in motion. Seen from outside, in their random states, for instance in a dictionary, words look like 
chaos. But fundamentally they’re always in order, at home, so to speak, with their phenomena. Meanwhile we’re thinking that it’s up to us to organize the words into sentences and oppositions before everything can be put in order. Nothing could be more inaccurate. The order we’re trying to organize our way into already exists. The opposition we set up between chaos and order is of our own making. We invent a certain way of looking at things, a way that we think keeps things in order, but without understanding that this way of seeing is itself a kind of order. It’s in this labyrinth of consciousness and the world intertwined that we find ourselves, where no one can know which comes first, the world or consciousness. The French poet Bernard Noël has an excellent description of poets’ situation in this context:

We write in order to get to the last word, but the act of writing constantly delays that. In reality, the last word can be anywhere at all in what we write. Or maybe it’s everything we write. In that way, when I write, I’m chasing a shadow — and it’s my chasing it that keeps the shadow in motion.
— Tr. by Susanna Nied

This is how we must view silk, the universe, language, and the heart. They’re parts of the shadow that we’re chasing. Shadows of silk, of the universe, of language, and of the heart; and as we chase them, they merge with each other and even with the shadow of god. Or as Lu Chi didn’t write, but might well have written: Things vanish into the shadows of each other and of themselves; but with the reflections of those shadows, poems return to light.

 

Translated from the Danish

Originally Published: August 31st, 2018

Inger Christensen (1935–2009), born in Vejle Denmark, was one of Europe's leading contemporary experimentalists. Her works include poetry, fiction, drama, and essays. She received numerous international literary awards, including the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy, the Grand Prix des Biennales Internationale de Poésie, the Austrian Sate Prize for Literature,...

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