The Iron Lung of Su Hui

by Fernando Borretti

He sought to recreate the great palindrome poem of Su Hui, a matrix of Chinese logograms twenty-nine characters tall and wide, which afforded hundreds of distinct readings: in every direction, within symmetrical internal regions, and along its outer perimeter. Finding his native language and its alphabet lacking, he set out to create his own. He wanted a language for writing regular poems on arbitrary rectangular grids, which could be read in every direction.

He abandoned his first attempt at the language once its script exceeded six hundred ideograms.

His second attempt was no more fruitful: his alphabet was smaller, but each character was extensively overloaded. The same symbol which, read left-from-right, stood for ‘labyrinth’, a top-to-bottom reading turned to ‘doorway’. This unnecessary restriction bound the nature and quality of his sentences: all left-to-right sentences were alike, as were all right-to-left sentences and those of all other directions.

Having found no way out of the cul-de-sac, he abandoned this second language understanding that it is not words, but their conjunction, that carry meaning.

His third attempt was a success.

These symbols were not spun from the aether, their shapes were the geometric conjunction of smaller characters, each a single stroke, each a symbol in an alphabet of conceptual primitives, like the calculus Leibniz saw but never described. His new characters formed natural families and categories, and were amenable to mathematical probing: during a brief digression, he discovered an encoding of his script into the integers under which all syntactically valid square poems were invertible matrices.

His first success was a simultaneous translation of Borges in the form of a column, six hundred and thirteen characters tall: a top-to-bottom reading revealed The Aleph, the reverse, The Zahir.

To prove the merit of his language beyond haikus and brief stories, his next labour was a translation of the Iliad. Read top to bottom as a boustrophedon – alternating left-to-right and right-to-left directions – it was the story of the sack of Ilium. Other directions offered new facets of the epic.

He was tempted, many times, to extend his work into three dimensions and beyond, creating a new language to write cubic poems that could be read across a new axis. He never pursued this, choosing instead to focus on composing poetry using the language he already had. He decided to stop working on the language and to start using it.

He was disturbed by dreams of inhabiting an infinite sequence of regular tetrahedra which, impossibly (unnervingly) tiled all of space. Their faces were immaterial and inscribed with golden characters. Most were unfamiliar to him, but some he identified as a divining script, whose characters were etched on bones. Their combustion divined the future. Wakefulness relieved him of this sacred knowledge: he soon forgot the shapes of the characters.

On the day of his fifty-sixth birthday his sister visited him and left, on his nightstand, a potted plant to keep him company. He wrote the detailed account of that day, as if in a journal, in the form of a matrix seventy-seven characters tall and broad. At night, he read it. He read it again, in another direction where the trail of characters for plant became flower. He awoke the next day to a bouquet of yellow flowers1 in a many-faceted glass vase.

Spurred by this good omen, he repeated his experiments and gradually filled his room with beautiful things. Not content to limit his experiments to mere addition, he sought to translate his surroundings.

He interviewed, by correspondence, old and current doctors and nurses and functionaries of the hospital. Within a year we had written as detailed an account of the hospital as any professional historian. He translated it to his language, taking care that the many orderings of its characters represented affine transformations of the hospital through space. The next morning, the view beyond his window of a bare concrete wall was transformed into an ocean. Night by night he rotated the hospital, his vantage point scanning the landscape like the beam of a lighthouse. Many times he changed its flag.

He then devised his miraculous plan.

He saw it racing towards his mind’s eye: indescribably large, mutiply symmetrical, self-similar, transected by overlapping cycles like the birds of Escher. The composition of the poem would take the remaining decades of his life, a careful navigation of its structures would abolish the hospital, the iron lung, his old age.

He set out to write the complete account of his life.

  1. Ficaria verna.

I wrote this in 2017, I think. But I have only shared it privately with one friend.

© 2021 Fernando Borretti. Released under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.