Poetry / May 2009 (Issue 7)

Exercise: Unlearning "Heart"

by Catherine Candano

"If you aim for simplicity, master complexity."
--From the gravestone of master calligrapher Tu Meng

She insisted calligraphy would reveal my heart;
strong and clear and forceful. Every afternoon,
she sat me down on the big chair, and made me
go through the motions: brush pen dipped in ink,
girded on the sides of First Aunt's chipped cup,
soft rabbit's-hair sharpened to a confident point.

The ebony character was "xin," a sparse picture
of the heart. It was one of the simplest exercises.
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.

Rice paper is on the desk now, as thin as when
I first learned to move brush along its length.
I trace shy strokes one by one, from top to bottom,
in perfect order. I can hear her lessons: permanence
demands precision and grace, control brings virtue
and boldness, method creates facility and fluidity.

Stroke one: Yi dian, wrist quickly pushes off to leave
a pregnant dot. Stroke two: Yi pie, wrist gingerly leans
on the surface, the movement swells, then lightens
into a twig-line. Half the heart done, I lift the brush
and lay it on a jade leaf. I take care, not to touch the ink
stone dragon, still wet. So as not to splatter nor surprise.

A brush waits for me in silence. A pool of ink shrinks
to a pinprick. Many moons after, I still hear her:
Copy rubbings from the masters, deliberately.
Water washes out the weight of ink, remember.
(First Child, repeat after me.) Above all, resist
sentiment. Too thin a line makes too thin a heart.

Editors' note: Read "A cup of fine tea: Catherine Candano's "Exercise: Unlearning "Heart"" here. 

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