Kathlene Postma’s “Chinese Box” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #16 of Cha)
The title of Kathlene Postma’s poem “Chinese Box” gives the reader an expectation of a description of a physical box. This expectation is however frustrated by the poem, which is about learning Chinese. Still, the title suggests the difference between cultures as seen through their boxes: a Chinese box is certainly different from a ballerina music box, for example. The Chinese box also provides a metaphor for the rigid shape of the written Chinese characters, an idea that the poem expands on. This rigidity is also demonstrated in the structure of the poem itself, which is divided into two groups of seven lines, each consisting of three couplets and a single line.
In the poem, we are presented with a persona who is practising calligraphy at night (L8). She compares the process of learning Chinese calligraphy to another Asian art form, origami: ‘I have folded and refolded until the seams are intimate’ (L1). The pen strokes of Chinese writing and the steps of paper-folding are both ordered in specific sequences, which lies at the heart of both calligraphy’s and origami’s beauty and precision. However, the persona does not seem able to master her hand movements. Upset, she compares her failure to bring Chinese characters to life to an inability to ‘make a frog that leaps or a crane / that flies’ (L3-L4). For the persona, Chinese writing is like a ‘labyrinth, maze and code’ (L4) – the image of a labyrinth or maze recalling a piece of very creased paper after it has been folded and refolded.
The persona, frustrated, puts aside her writing and begins to contemplate the structure of the Chinese language. She thinks that Chinese words are ‘like small cities across the page’ (L15) divided into ‘straight streets’ (L6). The ‘cities’ simile is particularly inspiring and effective – while the box shapes of the characters hint at a kind of very organised and uniform cityscape (the boxes have the same height and width), within the boxes, there is a variety of strokes and movements, suggesting a bustling city inside the confining, larger structure.
The second part of the poem tells us about the teacher, who lives across the ocean (L8) and is portrayed as patient and forgiving (L11). While it is night in the student’s city, in the tutor’s country it is already the following morning: ‘You are ahead / of me always, morning tea in hand’ (L8-L9), the drink acting as a quintessential symbol of Asian culture. Although these lines clearly refer to the two different time zones that the teacher and student inhabit (Asia will forever be chronologically ahead of the West), the lines also suggest that the teacher’s level of skill will be forever unattainable to the pupil. The lines may also speak to the persona’s perception about the greater sophistication of Chinese characters compared to English letters.
This sense can also be felt at the end of the poem, in which the persona describes her own writing as ‘a flourish of loose lines’ (L11), which are not disciplined like Chinese boxes. More tellingly, she compares her English writing to something ‘a child could write, one vowel set after the other, / beads upon a string I drape across your screen’ (L12-L13). These lines highlight her belief that English-writing is relatively straightforward – the equivalent of a child stringing a bracelet out of beads. Still, there is a simple honesty and directness in this image, which speaks to our universal desire to make something and to communicate. This leads to the final line of the poem, which emphasises the equality of communication between the teacher and the student: ‘You reading me reading you’ (L14). These lines can also be expanded out to speak to the wider cultural exchange between east and west, which if not always perfect, is still valuable for its own sake.
Kathlene Postma‘s poetry, short fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various literary reviews, including Rattle, Hawaii Review,Passages North, Willow Springs, Los Angeles Review, Beloit Fiction Journal,Natural Bridge, Green Mountains Review, and Fugue. An essay of hers was designated a “notable” for an issue of Best American Travel Writing. She has taught in Sichuan Province and Central Turkey. She edits the literary magazine Silk Road and teaches creative writing at Pacific University in Oregon.