Monday, February 27, 2012

`The Knot Is a Patterned Integrity'

In The Pound Era, page 145, Hugh Kenner addresses the subject of Buckminster Fuller on knots and thoughtfully supplies a three-step diagram, less muddled than an Ikea assembly manual, for tying “a common overhand knot, two 360° rotations in intersecting planes, each passed through the other.” Much of Kenner’s effectiveness as writer and critic is rooted in his willingness to patiently explain things, even the seemingly obvious, step by step, so you can see them and understand how you might do it yourself. Back to the knot:

“Pull, and whatever your effort each lobe of the knot makes it impossible that the other shall disappear. It is a self-interfering pattern. Slacken, and its structure hangs open for analysis, but suffers no topological impairment. Slide the knot along the rope: you are sliding rope through the knot…The knot is a patterned integrity.”

Presumably, I learned to tie the overhand knot on my own, knowing nothing about topology, but my father, an ironworker, taught me the bowline, the third-most-useful knot after the overhand and square. My father was less patient in his instructional manner than Kenner, but after half a century I can still tie it blindfolded. Timothy Murphy includes “The Bowline” (For Nicholas)” in Mortal Stakes / Faint Thunder (Dakota Institute Press, 2011):

“A young sailor plummeted from a tree.
Stunned as though a spreader had cracked his head,
he lay six months unmoving, nearly dead.
To rouse him from insensibility
a wise doctor gave him a length of rope,
said `Bowline.’ The rabbit popped up the hole,
and hopped counter-clockwise around the bole.
Prayers had been heard, a mooring made for hope.”

Nicholas Robbins is the son of the poet Deborah Warren. About seven years ago the boy fell from a tree in New Zealand. Murphy, a friend of Warren’s, picks up the story:

“He suffered a serious head injury and was in a coma for six months. That he is now in rehab back in Boston is something of a miracle. I wrote him a poem that relies on the old mnemonic used to teach boys how to tie a bowline, `the rabbit comes up the hole, hops round the tree, and back down the hole.’ The story is true.”

The knot’s name betrays its nautical origins. It is “a rope that holds the edge of a square sail towards the bow of the ship and into the wind.” That a knot, a quintessentially human creation, should help rouse and untie an inwardly knotted young man is not a surprise. That another man should write a poem about it, a “self-interfering pattern,” is a blessing.

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