A cup of fine tea: Catherine Candano’s “Exercise: Unlearning “Heart””

Catherine Candano’s “Exercise: Unlearning “Heart”” [Read the poem here] (First published in issue #7 of Cha)

– This post is written by Tammy Ho.

Heart / Love

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.

14 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Catherine Candano’s “Exercise: Unlearning “Heart”””

  1. naperville mom Says:

    wow! this was almost instantaneous! Thank you!:) Although I loved the poem in an ethereal sense, it’s only now (after explanations, esp regarding differences in brushstrokes in ‘heart’ and ‘love’) that I can truly begin to appreciate the poem. Beautiful!:)

  2. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    Nicely stated! This is a poem filled with grace. There is an engaging confidence in the narrator’s voice.

    The poem isn’t just about calligraphy, however. It is a reaffirmation of how experience and art work together, reinforcing each other’s strengths. “To master brush, you must master the emotions you wield.”

    We’re also advised through the First Aunt to “Copy rubbings from the masters…”
    It’s only from both learning through others and our own personal experiences that we can create own forceful art.

    The poem ends with good advice for any poet or artist: “Above all, resist
    sentiment. Too thin a line makes too thin a heart.”

    Thanks for the excellent poem!

  3. Joan Says:

    The explanation strikes a chord from my past – spending time with my older sister who had nothing but patience for my efforts with brush and colour. The idea of the thin line/thin heart is so cold and mean, yet delivered with love from First Aunt to child. Thank you for this poem and explanation.

  4. Douglas Kerr Says:

    So why is it “unlearning” heart? What unlearning is involved? You don’t have to unlearn “heart” in order to write “love”.

    The ending is interesting. Too thin a line is associated with sentiment. I find this counter-intuitive. I suppose I associate sentiment with something thick, gushing, or soupy (“laying it on thick”, or laying it on with a trowel, as Shakespeare says). I would have thought thinness goes more with understatement and restraint, but here the opposite is indicated, at least if the last two lines go together. Why should a thin heart be the sign of sentiment?

  5. naperville mom Says:

    The above comment is interesting…i’d think that the character ‘love’ is actually building on ‘heart’…so the question’d be so relevant…

    A ‘thin line’ could be interpreted as frailty, a derivative of a heart that’s too flimsy/ flippant to be able to derive strength for a stronger voice (in this case, brush stroke)…

    The exchanges’ve been so divulging and i love this new idea of ‘interpreting’ works, Tammy!:)

  6. Nikesh Murali Says:

    Have not seen many journals do this. But what a great idea. The fact that you are able to write in depth about the pieces shows the quality of the editorial work that goes behind CHA.

  7. Shadowy figure Says:

    I wonder if it would be worthwhile to include this type of analysis to Cha itself (additional editorial content, maybe) rather than just your blog?

  8. naperville mom Says:

    I read the poem again and here’s my take on it (I can be completely off the track here…): The poem begins with Master calligraphy, Tu Meng’s quote, “If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.” As a derivative of the quote, it can be said that in order to learn heart (achieve total control over one’s emotions), one has to master love (experience true love)…In other words, it’d be futile, trying to ‘learn’ heart if one hasn’t completely mastered the ‘art of love’….So, the author, in her quest to achieve total control over her heart, which is again, the root of Buddhist philosophies practiced widely in the east (so quite a natural leaning, should I say), implies that one’d have to begin learning love, or the art of love first…before he settles to learning ‘heart’…Any takers?:)

  9. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    The ‘unlearning heart’ in the title seems a bit perplexing. But since I took the poem to be about the creation of art, I have a different take on the title. I think the key lines in the poem are:

    Chinese taught their young to write out “heart”
    first, before they learned the harder one, “love.”
    (Repeat after me, First Child.) To master brush,
    you must master the emotions you wield.

    One tackles the easier challenges first, the writing out of ‘heart’ and the mastering of the emotions and brush to achieve that. Then one moves on to bigger challenges, taking on more complexity, for example the subject of love. Deeper, more complicated emotions are involved, and once you understand them you can tackle them on paper, whether it’s in calligraphy or in a poem or whatever…

    To ‘unlearn’ the heart is to learn to see things clearly, to understand one’s true emotions. We inherit a lot of ways to seeing the world from others, and some of them we don’t question. Often they are sentimental views of complex subjects. But to be honest, they aren’t necessarily the ‘true’ ways that we view the world.

    To learn our own hearts, we must shed these ‘sentimental’ views and try to understand our emotions honestly. Then we can transfer our understanding to paper. I think that is why the poem ends with:
    “Above all, resist / sentiment. Too thin a line makes too thin a heart.”

  10. Catherine Candano Says:

    Many thanks particularly to Tammy, Bob, Joan, Douglas and Naperville Mom for all your thoughts. It is truly appreciated to see the various readings of the piece especially that the topic of the work, calligraphy, is close to my heart not only as a field of art but also as a practice!

    Much of my understanding of the discipline was by learning Chinese calligraphy at a young age, being descended from Filipino-Chinese heritage, it was one of few opportunities for rootedness. I remember holding the brush in my hand, understanding the interplay between your mental/emotional state and the outcome (i.e. thickness/thinness, smoothness/stiltedness) of your strokes.

    The words literally are always the same, but each time you write out the words with the brush, you also write with your heart. It is a deeply personal lesson in all respects to learn to write calligraphy.

  11. Caleb Powell Says:

    Hi, Nice poem, Catherine. Your words embrace the beauty of calligraphy. I find ‘love’ the most beautiful character in the Chinese language, a fine example of the inferiority of the simplified.

  12. Lee Sloca Says:

    I love the 2nd and 4th stanza. The whole image of learning first “heart” then “love.” I was so eager to follow that path of calligraphy to learn other words like “heartbreak,” “redemption,” then “growth.” But it didn’t. The poem is more about the teacher and the pupil relationship; so I stumped by its title, “Exercise: Unlearning “Heart”. As it is, with the ending, it seems like she is still hearing her teacher’s voice of not making the line too thin. How’s that unlearning?

  13. Catherine Candano Says:

    Dear Lee and Tammy,

    Thank you for kind words and thoughts! It is a joy to engage with thoughtful readers on this piece since I feel I learn a lot about various perspectives and takes on it.

    I appreciate you bringing up the question of diction, particularly in the title. The unlearning bit was quite critical for me in the idea of the half-finished ideogram of the heart. In calligraphy I found it interesting that learning was linear in the sense that to learn to write calligraphy meant to always go forward. One could never re-trace a stroke, or layer on ink upon a prefigured stroke. There is never a backward stroke, only forward motions.

    Best wishes,

  14. Bernard Says:

    Thanks for the analysis.

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