A cup of fine tea: Wena Poon’s “Copernicus for a Singaporean Grandmother”

Wena Poon’s “Copernicus for a Singaporean Grandmother” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #9 of Cha)

-This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback.

Even from the title, “Copernicus for a Singaporean Grandmother”, one gets the sense that Wena Poon’s piece inhabits the slightly off kilter space that makes for good poetry. The title suggests the confluence of a number of different worlds — the West (Copernicus) and the East (Singapore), as well as science (Copernicus) and tradition (grandmother). ‘Grandmother’ also hints at an intergenerational meeting. What the reader realises as he/she advances through the poem is that it embraces all of these spaces but that when they come together, we are left with a world which seems a little bit out of sync.

What seems to throw the world of the poem off its orbit is revealed in the first two lines, in which we learn that ‘The truth, I’m afraid, was quite rudely / Dropped on her one hot afternoon / For no reason at all’ (L1-L3). This ‘truth’ interrupts the routine of an otherwise normal afternoon in which the grandmother of the title is sitting in a deck chair ‘[m]inding her own business’ (L7). The moment of disclosure seems deliberately chosen by the poet, coming after the postman’s arrival and before the grandmother’s afternoon nap, as if the postman has delivered some unsettling news that will affect the old woman’s normal rest.

The postman, however, turns out to be a foreshadowing figure for the real messenger, the ‘I’ of the poem, presumably the old woman’s grandchild. When the ‘I’ reveals the ‘truth’, it seems to affect the grandmother in the same manner as previously delivered bad news: ‘Her eyes grew large / Her voice tensed (like when her doctor / Told her the bad news’) (L8-L10). The use of the definite article before ‘bad news’ is telling and the reader can only conclude one of three things: that someone close to her is sick, that they have died, or that she herself is very ill. The exact nature of the news is never explained within the poem. However, it suggests that the ‘truth’ of the first stanza is a dramatic one.

It is this tension that makes the reveal at the start of the next stanza such a strange one. The ‘truth’ turns out to be the common knowledge that the Earth is round and revolves around the much larger Sun (L11-L13). This information would not strike most readers as something on the same level as ‘bad news’ from a doctor. Indeed, it is strange to think that anyone, even an elderly person, living in a modern city like Singapore would not already be acquainted with this basic knowledge of our universe. Perhaps the grandmother in the poem has not received much education or perhaps she is feigning ignorance, indulging the youthful vanity of the grandchild by allowing her to show off.

The grandchild reveals the ‘truth’ to her grandmother with a ‘fold-out’ map of the universe from National Geographic (L14). ‘Fold-out’ is a well chosen term, suggesting that this knowledge of the universe is being unfolded for the grandmother as well as echoing ‘spindly little fan’ (L6) from the first stanza. The grandmother, whether out of indulgence or real curiosity, encourages the grandchild to continue her lesson by asking “Where are we?” (L17) This question is of course one which is loaded with any number of meanings. The persona, however, seems oblivious to its philosophical potential, as she childishly imagines herself to be ‘Admiral Akbar’ from The Return of the Jedi pointing out their location to ‘the Rebel Alliance’ (L18-L19). This pop culture reference is perhaps a slightly odd one and some readers may feel it is out of place within the poem. However, it does demonstrate the intergenerational differences between the characters and may also serve to highlight the disconnected reality of the scene.

The tone changes in the last two stanzas as the persona laments that ‘It was too late in her life’ for her grandmother to ‘learn all this’ and ‘Perhaps I should not have tried’ (L20-L21). There is a hint of arrogance in the persona’s tone, as if she has been confirmed in her belief that her grandmother is too old to learn anything new. Or maybe she regrets having changed her grandmother’s worldview at such a late date. Indeed, the poem suggests more than the grandmother’s inability to learn new facts. Perhaps this education has revealed to the old woman how infinitely small her life is compared to the size of the universe. If the ‘bad news’ of the first stanza is that she is dying, this revelation would be even more poignant and would certainly make the granddaughter reflect on their conversation.

The final stanza does not resolve any of these questions but instead deepens the ambiguity of the situation. The grandmother spends the afternoon sitting silently in her chair, ‘looking up at clouds’ (L22) as the ‘shadows grew longer’ (L23). The lengthening shadows is a clear metaphor for the grandmother’s approaching death, although it is uncertain whether she is sick or just facing the prospect of old age. That she is looking up at the clouds suggests that she may be considering her place in the universe but it is also a typical posture for someone deep in thought – the grandmother could be thinking about anything. The reader is left uncertain as to what exactly she is thinking about and is also left wondering whether the granddaughter knows either. The poem is written from the younger person’s perspective and as such the situation is mediated through her. It is debatable whether the persona knows her grandmother’s thoughts or what the effect of her lesson has been on the older woman.

The poem ends with the line ‘I acted as casual as I could be’ (L24). The reader will never know if the lesson has had an effect on the grandmother. However, it is clear that the persona thinks it has and is thus putting on an ‘act’. That she feels the need to feign nonchalance also reveals that the afternoon’s event has affected her. Is she feeling guilty and pretending the conversation has never happened? Or is she trying not to gloat over her superior knowledge? Is this indeed the memory of a child who has loaded meanings onto a casual conversation that the grandmother might soon forget but that the persona will always remember?

Painting of Copernicus by Jan Matejko (19th century)

Wena Poon [website] began writing fiction at an early age. A fourth generation Singaporean, she moved to America as a teenager and worked as a journalist and lawyer in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Austin and Hong Kong. Her first book, Lions In Winter, was listed for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Singapore Literature Prize. Since then she has released The Proper Care of Foxes and The Biophilia Omnibus, a literary science fiction series. Her contemporary novel about women matadors in Spain, Alex y Robert (Salt Publishing) was released in the UK in 2010.

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5 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Wena Poon’s “Copernicus for a Singaporean Grandmother””

  1. Asian Cha Says:

    Robert said: “Grandma took the news a lot better than Pope Urban VIII.”

  2. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    Well, it’s a fun poem, this interaction between child and grandmother.
    What I find the most fun is the worldview that each is privy to. The child would have us believe hers is the ‘scientific’ world. But her ‘scientific’ world is one parroted from National Geographic. How much understanding is there by her behind her fold-out universe? Her world is at least as fantastic as her grandmother’s may be, as when she says:

    “Where are we?” she asked, eyes following
    My finger as I pointed dryly, like Admiral
    Akbar briefing the Rebel Alliance.

    Perhaps worldviews are as relative and as warped as someone riding a sunbeam into a black hole. All our worldviews, perhaps, are warped by our influences.

    And the influence that the child surmises that she has over her grandmother with her fold-outs and references, that’s a big leap in logic itself. Something perhaps only a child would exhibit.

    This poem has interesting angles. Those perspectives and the simple language makes this poem a fun read. Thanks!

  3. Yamabuki Zhou Says:

    Ah to be young again
    Full of learned knowledge
    Of the world around us
    And the world inside as well

    School teaches us these facts
    Giving us an education
    Pulling us up out of ignorance
    As supposedly personified
    By the grandmother

    Still wise old woman that she is
    She knows better then to object
    She knows the real wisdom
    That the child does not know
    Learned in the school of life

    She knows of life and death
    Lived and suffered
    Burned into her soul
    In a way that rote knowledge
    Can never duplicate

    Facts and figures may be new
    Planets and Suns figured
    With facts and calculations

    But try calculating a cloud
    Or the shape of death
    And all the conceits of the mind
    Fall badly apart
    In the face of the heart’s wisdom

    yamabuki

  4. Stella Pierides Says:

    A poem full of atmosphere, complexity and wisdom. And so well-sipped by the team of Cup of Fine Tea!

    Just thinking aloud; perhaps repeating what has been said already: I shiver at the shock/impact of the Copernican revolution – how people reacted when told that their precious Earth was not the centre of the universe, as if the scientific discovery had taken all their (self) importance away, as if it had undermined their belief in themselves…

    And here we have the grandmother in her innocence being given the same news. She takes them seriously, she believes her grandchild, she struggles inwardly and from the narrator’s observations, we are to understand she displays a wise, benevolent acceptance. Yes, she accepts the new/next generation, she can cope with the lessening of her importance, that she no longer is the centre of the universe for her grandchild – and that’s how it should be… as it seems she were giving permission to the grandchild to move on to further explorations (and exploits!). I love such a poem and grandmother!

  5. Asian Cha Says:

    A recent BBC programme, “The Beauty of Diagrams – 2. Copernicus” (broadcast on Thu, 25 Nov 2010), reminded us of this poem!

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