Wednesday, August 23, 2006



Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water by Cecilia Vicuna
(Graywolf Press, 1992)

What doors would listening together open? (54)

Vicuna’s Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water is a selection from 3 of her books: Precarious, Palabrarmás, and La Wik’una (some of the poems written originally in English, others translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine).

One enters the book at the moment of its premise: “if, at the beginning of time, poetry was an act of communion, a form of collectively entering a vision, now it is a space one enters, a spatial metaphor” (4). The construction of the book, its unravelling of complete collections into a woven selection, allows the reader to participate in the “act of communion” and collectively enter the “spatial metaphor” of the book. One could even say that the idea of “metaphor” is the most important metaphor in the book:

Metapherein: to carry beyond
                               to the other contemplation:
to con-temple the interior and the exterior. (5)

Metaphor, from the Greek
metaphora, from
metapherein, to carry or
transfer. Meta: beyond.
Pherein: to carry.
               Joan Corominas

The metaphor carries beyond, toward the most complex and the most specific forms of comparison; to the furthest limits of knowledge, to the essence, the heart of being, to its reason for being. (42)

The Indo-European root
bher, to carry, also, to bear children. Latin ferre, to carry, confer, differ, fertile, suffer; Greek pherein, to carry, amphora, euphoria, metaphor. (45)

The reader is invited to “con-temple” the unravelling of etymology in an effort to “bear” a word’s “strings (cuerdas) of emotion” and its “shared bones, sticks and feathers” (4). What others might consider “refuse,” Vicuna refuses to discard (this parallels Vicuna’s artistic method of gathering “trash” and arranging them into a new space). She describes this method as “[rediscovering] a way of thinking: the paths of mind I traveled, listening to matter, took me to an ancient silence waiting to be heard” (4). Through reading, one discovers the paths of Vicuna’s listening to the paths of listening.

The serial poem, “Five Notebooks for Exit Art,” anchors the first selection from “Precarious.” The first section, “Connection,” describes the book’s aesthetic and ethical project:

The art of joining, union
ned: to bind, to tie
zero grade form:
old English: net
Latin: nodus

David Brower said: ‘The earth is dying because people don’t see the connection’ between a hamburger and the death of the rain forest, air conditioning and the death of the atmosphere.

Eliot Weinberger said: ‘Do you know what a
clue is? A ball of yarn or thread that Theseus used to come out of the labyrinth, thus anything that guides or directs in the solution of a problem.’

René Guénon says: ‘the connection protects.’

in Nahuatl, one of the names of God is ‘nearness and togetherness’ (. . .
del cerca y del junto)” (6)

Vicuna’s “free verse etymology” and “associative quoting” knit the silences of the book. These techniques thread an undeniable ethical motive to an experimental aesthetic formation. Section 3, “The Origin of Weaving,” continues the thread:

oriri: the coming out of the stars

weban, wefta, Old English
weft, cross thread


the first knot, beginning of the spiral:
life and death, birth and rebirth

textile, text, context
teks: to weave [...] (11)

Words, as textiles, become text and expand its contexts to cross-thread a deep (almost desperate) pedagogical space. Although this runs the danger of becoming strictly pedantic, Vicuna deftly manages this precarious balance, (reminding us that “the precarious is that which is obtained through prayer”):

sutra: sacred Buddhist text
               thread (Sanskrit)

tantra: sacred text derived from the Vedas: thread

ching: as in Tao Te Ching or I Ching
               sacred book: warp
               wei: its commentaries:

Quechua: the sacred language
               derived from q’eswa:
               rope or cord made of straw

to weave a new form of thought:
bring together in one (10)

As the text listens to its own weaving, it compels us to consider our own act of reading as a “spatial metaphor” through which to internalize these “new forms.” In addition, the poem develops its own “spatial metaphor” to incorporate an exterior socio-political context:

pueblo: people
altar: “place for burning sacrificial offerings”

               we are the pueblo
               our house the altar

threshold: limit or doorway

lintel, the top of the threshold
liminaris, the limit
and the most ancient
tol: as in dolmen:
table of stone

               mesa and missa
(the mass, from “sending a message”)
               are also confused

(limit and lumen:
the light came to be one)

to confuse is “to pour together”

house and altar are intertwined


in Panama, the people made homeless by the U.S. bombing were called

favelas, callampas, pueblos jovenes, villas miserias, shantytowns by any name are all
               Pueblos de altares

“Palabrarmás,” the second selection of the book, was “born from a vision in which individual words opened to reveal their inner associations, allowing ancient and newborn metaphors to come to light.” The word, “palabrarmás,” weaves palabra (word), labrar (to work), armas (arms), and más (more). Vicuna articulates the word as meaning: “to work words as one works the land is to work more; to think of what the work does is to arm yourself with the vision of words. And more: words are weapons, perhaps the only acceptable weapons” (27). This selection adopts the methods of “Precarious” (etymology, epigraphs, lyric meditation) in a more incantatory approach. Listen to how etymology, rooting the depth of the poem, emerges as chant:

In consciousness, we unite two roots, kom, with, and scire, to know.

Kom, beside, near, by, with. Germanic ga, Old English ge, together. Latin cum, co, with. Suffixed form kom-tra, in Latin contra, against, suffixed form kom-yo, in Greek koinos, common, shared.

Sek, to cut, split, Latin scire, to know, “to separate one thing from another.” Old English scrim, shin, shinbone, “piece cut off.” Suffixed form skiy-ena, Old Irish scian, knife, Germanic skitan, to separate, defecate. Suffixed form sk(h)id-yo, in Greek skhizein, split.

Demo (the root for democracy), comes from the root da, dai, to divide. Suffixed form da-mo, division of society, demos, people, land. (Those who divide among themselves what there is.) (61)

And listen to how the quoted voices possess the silence of the page to form a textual chorus:

Name; the word seems to be a compressed sentence, signifying being for which there is a search.
Cratylus (37)

. . . the explication of saman, ‘liturgical chant,’ from sa (she) + ama (he), developed at length in the Chandogya Upanishad, reminds the poet that by chanting he activates within himself a marriage between two forces, male and female; and elsewhere, the same text gives for the same word, a totally different explanation . . . This digression seemed necessary to underling the spiritually practical (and not intellectually discursive) value of the Hindu verbal elaborations.
               René Daumal,
Rasa (39)

Language falls, comes from above as little luminous objects that fall from heaven, which I catch word after word with my hands.
               María Sabina (52)

Although these methods could be interpreted as fetishizing etymology and quotation, Vicuna manages to embed these aesthetic formations within deeper ethical motives. First, on the ethical value of quotations:

The common ground shared by these and so many other texts -- what does it say? That we are all thinking together, but expressing ourselves in thousands of ways that are both different and the same? Or that an ancient wisdom, suppressed and forgotten, is revived in the poetic thought of every era? (54)

And on the ethical value of etymology:

Words want to speak; to listen to them is the first task

To open words is to open oneself.

To discover the ancient metaphors condensed in the word itself.

A history of words would be a history of being, but this writing is only a meditation through hints and fragments -- from the imagination, for the imagination. (36)

We now see that Vicuna’s collage of voices provides a “proof” that a “common ground” of trans-national and trans-historical wisdom exists, despite the suppressive tendencies and forgetfulness of modernity. This suggests that poetry can revive our communion with ancient wisdom if the poet (and the reader) listens to words in order to open their histories and our own histories of being. It is this motive that “bears” the aesthetic formations of the book into a more profound ethic.

“La’Wikuna,” the final selection of the book, is composed of lyric poems with interspersed untitled pages that use the methods of “Palarbrarmás.” Vicuna’s translated lyric voice moves between weightless flight and freighted rooting. Here are some examples:

In the

A reflection
dancing Alight


at dark

The edge rules
the line beats

Doorway eye:
beach glass green


Spiraling air

Chiselled trill



threading eyelet

Your house built
from the same

Weave on


The meditative lyricism in this last selection offers a nice balance to the more discursive methods in the previous two selections. These “songs” curve, weave, thread, and chisel the paths of listening. Vicuna’s voice, that reflection dancing alight in the wasteland, braids the textual “common ground” and “histories of being” to teach us how one can continue to “weave on” and contribute to the “household.” It begins to show us what doors listening together would open.
After reading Unravelling Words and the Weaving of Water, I found myself hoping that this review could be a way for us to enter reading as a “spatial metaphor,” an act of communion with a writer whose path involves listening to an “ancient silence waiting to be heard.” Vicuna, the most conscientious of poets, binds an ethical foundation with formal experimentation -- an intersection that makes this book a must read.


Craig Perez, originally from the Pacific island of Guam, has lived in California since 1995. Currently, he is completing his MFA at the University of San Francisco. He is also an assistant fiction editor for Pleiades, and the poetry editor for Switchback Online. His work has appeared in Watchword, The Redlands Review, and Quercus. You can visit his blog at


Post a Comment

<< Home