Catherine Candano’s “Exercise: Unlearning “Heart”” [Read the poem here] (First published in issue #7 of Cha)
The Chinese character “Heart” is a relatively ‘simple’ character: ‘a sparse picture / of the heart’ (L7-L8). “Love” is much more complicated: it has thirteen strokes. Because of this, ‘Chinese taught their young to write out “heart” / first, before they learnt the harder one, “love”‘ (L9-L10). Two things about the Chinese are implied here. First, they choose only to teach certain characters to the young people. “Heart” and “Love” are appropriate. (“Hate”, I think, is probably not.) Second, they follow steps: we don’t learn to run before we learn to walk (or crawl).
For those who do not know Chinese: in the character “Love” (see above), “Heart” sits in the middle, compressed but secure. The meaning is unambiguous: to love you must have a heart. And this organ cannot be placed randomly: it must be put right in the centre. See, the Chinese writing system is mostly rational and iconic. (Note, however, that in simplified Chinese, “Heart” is taken out from “Love”. This is one of the reasons why I think the simplified writing system is inferior. It tells you that “Love” does not need a “Heart”.)
But Candano’s poem is not only about calligraphy. It is also about the memories of ‘First Aunt’ and the calligraphy lessons she gave. In the first stanza, we are offered abundant information about these lessons: they took place in the afternoon, the persona was sat on a big chair (perhaps the chair was big because she was small), the cup that held the ink was ‘chipped’ (L5), the pen was made of rabbit’s hair (L6). In the second stanza, we are told that the persona was learning to write out “Heart”, as a prelude to the more difficult character, “Love”.
But that particular lesson is incomplete, halted. No actual writing ensues.
The stanza break between the second and third stanzas also divides the past and the present. In the third stanza, the persona continues in the present what she left behind in the past, that is, the writing out of “Heart”: ‘Rice paper is on the desk now, as thin as when / I first learnt to move brush along its lenghth’ (L13-L14 italics mine). What’s changed between the two scenes? While previously ‘First Aunt’ is supposedly physically present, now she is reduced to a benevolent voice: ‘I can hear her lesson’ (L16), ‘I still hear her’ (L26) and ‘(First child, repeat after me)’ (L29).
The persona, now alone but not lonely, confidently writes out the first two strokes of the ‘ebony character’ (L7). At the same time, she remembers First Aunt’s valuable lesson: ‘Too thin a line makes too thin a heart’ (L30). This line (both the calligraphy line and the line in the poem) embodies Buddhist simplicity and wisdom.
No doubt what character the persona will write next; and that will be a tribute to her beloved calligraphy teacher.
Catherine Candano‘s work has been published in several anthologies of Philippine literature in English, such as the Philippine PEN Center’s At Home in Unhomeliness: An Anthology of Postcolonial Poetry in English and ANI, the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ journal of literature. She is the recipient of competitive prizes as well as writing fellowships for her poetry from the University of Southern Indiana, University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, among others. Her passion for youth-led sustainable development over the decade has taken her as far as Prague, Nairobi and Ulaanbaatar. She has lived in Thailand, working on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) portfolio for youth and children’s engagement and sustainable development policy across Asia and the Pacific. Currently, she is based at the National University of Singapore’s Communication and New Media Programme.