Xuanjitu by Su Hui​

(The Map of the Armillary Sphere)

BOMB 139 Spring 2017
BOMB 139 Cover

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


Su Hui Bomb 01

Su Hui, Xuanjitu (The Map of the Armillary Sphere). Courtesy of The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.

For nearly two thousand years, the condensed language of classical Chinese has offered the possibility of writing poems that may be read forward and backward. The genre was known as the “flight of wild geese.” With examples ranging from the third to the nineteenth centuries, Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems (New York Review Books and The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2017), edited by Michèle Métail and translated by Jody Gladding, makes this ancient experimental genre available in English for the first time.

Its most enduring practitioner was Su Hui, a fourth-century poet who embroidered a silk for her distant husband consisting of a grid of 840 characters. No one has ever fully explored all of its possibilities, but it is estimated that the poem may be read as many as twelve thousand ways. As Métail notes, “The important thing is not so much the exact number of poems, nor how exhaustively we read them, as it is the vertigo that grips the reader facing the open work, facing the infinitely unfurling meaning.” The following is a small selection of potential readings of Su Hui’s reversible poem.

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Detail 1 (upper right block).

Detail 1: twenty-four ways of reading generate eight poems of twelve lines and sixteen poems of six lines.

According to the first way of reading:

Alas! I sigh with languor
Over the one who wandered from the way.
Far-off the wilderness path
Wounded my innermost feelings.
The house no longer has a master
Transparent curtains in the alcove.
The face equally adorned
In the bright mirror shines forth.
Ornaments of the multiple reflections
The pearls gleam, brilliant.
So many thoughts assail me
Who is seen honored there?

Second way of reading, reverse of the one above:

To whom does the honor revert
For prompting so many thoughts?
Brilliant, the splendor of the pearls
Reflections of multiple ornaments.
Luminous the mirror shines
Elegant finery of the face.
Room with transparent curtains
You no longer have a home.
Feeling of a deep wound
The path disappears into the wilderness.
The way withdraws from here
Me languishing, I sigh, alas!

The two lines “The house no longer has a master” and “You no longer have a home” give some idea of the change in meaning introduced by the reverse reading.

According to the fifth way of reading:

Me languishing, I sigh, alas!
Over the one who wandered from the way.
The path disappears into the wilderness
Wounded my innermost feelings.
You no longer have a home
Transparent curtains in the alcove.
The elegant finery of the face
In the bright mirror shines forth.
Reflections of multiple ornaments
The pearls gleam, brilliant.
Assailed by so many thoughts
Who is seen honored there?

According to the ninth way of reading:

Alas! I sigh with langour
Wounded my innermost feelings.
The house no longer has a master
The clear mirror shines forth.
Ornaments of multiple reflections
Who is seen honored there?

According to the seventeenth way of reading:

Alas! I sigh with langour
The path disappears into the wilderness.
The house no longer has a master
Elegant finery of the face.
Ornaments of multiple reflections
In me so many thoughts!

According to the eighteenth way of reading:

To whom reverts the honor
Of the pearls that gleam, brilliant?
Clear the mirror shines
Transparent curtains of the alcove.
Feeling of a deep wound
He who wandered from the way.

 

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Detail 2 (center cross-section).

Detail 2: four blocks of characters arranged crosswise are read either vertically (the blocks located to the right and to the left) or horizontally (the blocks located at the top and bottom). Through their various ways of reading, they generate a total of sixty-four quatrains in lines of five syllables.

Right block according to the first way:

The cold year is recognizable in the dead pines
Of true things, one knows the end and the
   beginning.
The depressed look deforms a beautiful face
The virtuous sage is distinguished from the
   wandering literati.

Second way:

In the pine that wastes away, one recognizes the
  cold of the year
From the beginning to the end, one knows the truth
  of things.
The beauty of a face is transformed by the
   despondency of the look
The literati who leaves wanders far from the virtue
  of the sage.

Fifth way:

The cold year is recognizable in the dead pines
From the beginning to the end, one knows the truth
  of things.
The depressed look transforms a beautiful face
The literati who leaves, wanders far from the virtue
  of the sage.

Ninth way:

The cold year is recognizable in the dead pines
The virtuous sage is distinguished from the
   wandering literati.
The depressed look transforms a beautiful face
Of true things one knows the beginning and the
   end.

Thirteenth way:

Of true things one knows the beginning and the end
The depressed look transforms a beautiful face.
The virtuous sage is distinguished from the
   wandering literati
The cold year is recognized in the dead pines.

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Originally published in

BOMB 139, Spring 2017

Featuring interviews with Steffani Jemison, Amitav Ghosh, Curt Stager, Ron Athey, Stephin Merritt, Rita Ackermann, Bryan Hunt, David Levine, Hari Kunzru, Sjón, and George Saunders.

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