Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Arthur Sze: "The Unnamable River"

1         Is it in the anthracite face of a coal miner,
           crystallized in the veins and lungs of a steel
           worker, pulverized in the grimy hands of a railroad engineer?
           Is it in a child naming a star, coconuts washing
           ashore, dormant in a volcano along the Rio Grande?

           You can travel the four thousand miles of the Nile
           to its source and never find it.
           You can climb the five highest peaks of the Himalayas
           and never recognize it.
           You can gaze though the largest telescope
           and never see it.

           But it's in the capillaries of your lungs.
           It's in the space as you slice open a lemon.
           It's in a corpse burning on the Ganges,
           in rain splashing on banana leaves.

           Perhaps you have to know you are about to die
           to hunger for it. Perhaps you have to go
           alone in the jungle armed with a spear
           to truly see it. Perhaps you have to
           have pneumonia to sense its crush.

           But it's also in the scissor hands of a clock.
           It's in the precessing motion of a top
           when a torque makes the axis of rotation describe a cone:
           and the cone spinning on a point gathers
           past, present, future.

2         In a crude theory of perception, the apple you
           see is supposed to be a copy of the actual apple,
           but who can step out of his body to compare the two?
           Who can step out of his life and feel
           the Milky Way flow out of his hands?

           An unpicked apple dies on a branch:
           that is all we know of it.
           It turns black and hard, a corpse on the Ganges.
           Then go ahead and map out three thousand mile of the Yantze;
           walk each inch, feel its surge and
           flow as you feel the surge and flow in your own body.

           And the spinning cone of a precessing top
           is a form of existence that gathers and spins death and life into one.
           It is in the duration of words, but beyond words—
           river river river, river river.
           The coal miner may not know he has it.
           The steel worker may not know he has it.
           The railroad engineer may not know he has it.
           But it is there. It is in the smell
           of an avocado blossom, and in the true passion of a kiss.

"The Unnamable River" by Arthur Sze, from The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998. © Copper Canyon Press, 1998.  

Photography credit: "Spinning Top," by David, Bergin, Emmett and Elliott (originally color).

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