Friday, April 07, 2006

Erin Noteboom in Vallum

Do yourself a favor and pick up the current issue of Vallum. You won't regret it. There is so much wonderful writing in there.

This untitled work by Canadian poet Erin Noteboom presents the possibility of having to choose between two things we all want:

ink brush ideograms
on a pair of teacups
my husband
pouring pale jasmine asks
happiness or love?

Erin Noteboom
(Vallum, Vol. 3:2 p. 29)

Can you imagine someone you're married to asking this? As if he were saying, "Assam or darjeeling?" Both are wonderful--but you can't mix them or you'll ruin the flavor. Is he playing, joking around? ("One lump or two?") Or has he had a sudden moment of self-awareness? This image, which at first appears to be a warm, typical domestic scene, feels poignant and sad to me.


MB said...

I find the difference in our responses interesting, Amy! You took it seriously. I burst out laughing and immediately thought — it's an impossible choice; it's a joke he's making. Yes, as if "one lump or two," but the fact that it's about two essentials of healthy living makes it an inherently impossible choice.

I think.

Man, if he were serious... yeah, that'd be dreadful.

J.B. Rowell said...

Can we really have both?

So glad this blog is up and running again!


Rich | Championable said...

That feels vaguely related a back-room expression about long-term success in relationships: "would you rather be right or happy?"

Which is another way of saying: "Chill, yo."


Kelley said...

How can you have one without the other? Sure, love contains hate and hurt. We always wound the ones we're closest to...and yet you wouldn't know love without hate and hurt to create the contrast...nor happiness without grief. So I am puzzled by this poem.

sigmund fraud said...

Thanx for this lovely poem.

If my mate asks me this question, I'd know that she is at her sacrcastic best, for I'd hardly be aware of what I'm drinking or drinking from, with my nose buried in the newspaper or my eyes locked on to the computer !

I'm very happy that you are feeling better and that you have reactivated this blog again.

Jod{i} said...

Oh Wow, I didnt read it that way either, I had the visual of a smirk, a caught off guard response.
Thanks for the pop over to Looking. I have read your blog for a time, glad you are feeling well or better?
I appreciate your words...


Amy said...

Remember that this poem is written with an East Asian sensibility. Think about a Zen koan, the most famous of which is "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" The Zen practitioner meditates upon this question not to come up with an answer, but to delve more deeply into his or her own psyche. It is the asking that is important.

When J.B. asks "Can we really have both?," that is an opportunity to question our Western standard that dictates that we must have both in order to succeed.

When Championable writes, "Chill, yo," it reminds us that this question is pure theory. It's our experience that counts, and how we judge out own experience.

If you are puzzled the way Kelley is, thinking that the two terms are inseparable, it's a chance to realize that other people and cultures experience happiness and love very differently. For example, an arranged marriage, which is still quite common in Japan, may not bring great romantic love, but can bring family, friendship, and indeed, happiness.

If, like Sigmund and MB, the poem makes you laugh and sounds absurd and/or just plain funny, you probably have a lot of common sense. Why dwell on a choice that may be impossible and may not even exist?

Amy said...

I was wondering what everyone makes of the "pale jasmine" tea. Why not a strong, dark darjeeling or a nice green tea? I wonder how the tea works as a metaphor for their relationship. Maybe the "color' has drained a bit from their marriage, and that is what prompts the husband to ask his question.

J.B. Rowell said...

That's a nice point about the pale jasmine, after 9 years of marriage, I realize that happiness is not a state you arrive at, and love can become quite pale - at least in comparison to the din of the day to day.

cj white said...

You have started a great dialog with a mere 17 words!

My first impression - the husband is asking the meaning of the ideograms on the cups, he recognizes them but is unsure which is which.

Reading the dialog and then re-reading the peom, I see a different perspective. The pale jasmine tea has been chosen, much like their decision to marry. He is pouring two cups of tea, happiness in one, love in the other. He offers her today's choice, he will take on the other.

Gilbert Koh said...

I'm East Asian (ethnically at least); I guess I should comment. :P

In some East Asian cultures, especially the upper classes, tea drinking is a fine art (a bit like the French and their wines). It's not just the tea that matters, but the way it is served, and the kind of cups and pots etc used to serve it.

Here an ideogram (or "character")has been inscribed on each cup. One cup bears the character "Happiness". The other cup bears the word "Love".

It would not be unusual for cups to be designed in this way. The writing of a single word can in itself be an art form - "calligraphy" - so an object can be inscribed with a single character eg "Love" or "Happiness" and be regarded as having a lot of artistic beauty.

(Some calligraphers spend years of their lives practising just a handful of words).

The husband, in asking "Happiness or love?", is literally asking the wife which cup she prefers, but of course, there is that other layer of meaning of a more philosophical nature.

Looking purely at the literal level, it wouldn't be unusual for the husband to ask "Happiness or love?" even though both cups contain the same jasmine tea. As the cups etc are all regarded as part of the art of enjoying tea, it is understandable that one may be interested in choosing the particular cup to drink from.

Putting the literal interpretation aside, the subtler level which no one (so far) seems to have mentioned is that whatever the wife chooses, the husband will be left with the alternative.

If the wife chooses Happiness, the husband has Love. If the wife chooses Love, the husband has to take Happiness.

If Love means "to love someone", rather than "to be loved", then we see some interesting interactions -

for example, if Wife Loves Husband, then Husband is Happy? But wife may not be?

Gilbert Koh said...

And of course, if Wife loves Husband, then he may be Happy, but this does not mean that he will Love her back?


Interestingly, I'm suddenly reminded of an old Chinese wedding custom. My wife and I actually had to do this at our traditional wedding ceremony.

She drinks a little from her cup of tea, and I drink a little from my cup of tea. Then we exchange cups, and drink from each other's cup.

That way, I guess we both get Love & Happiness. :)

Amy said...

As both cj and Gilbert point out, the husband could be literally putting forth a choice between two cups. And, as they both say, the husband will get whatever the wife does not choose, both literally and figuratively.

Gilbert, thank you for your comments about the importance of tea-drinking in East Asian cultures. It helps a great deal to put this poem in that context. I'm struck by your wedding ritual--each drinking from both cups, so you both partake in each other's experience.

Amy said...


Yeah, I think the pale tea is alluding to a paleness in the marriage. Although, jasmine is a very fragrant tea, so that complicates things. That does make sense, though; a marriage is both intense at times and pale at times.

MB said...

Great discussion! Amy, I have missed your blog!

Erin Noteboom said...

Good heavens -- what an amazing conversation to stumble upon.

As it happens, the husband in this poem is simply reading the ideograms on the cups, which read "happiness" and "love."

But the question is so freighted, especially in the context of marriage (where one does occasionally trade passion for comfort, or honesty for peace, or me for you) that I couldn't resist playing around.

Amy said...


Thank you so much for dropping by! As you can see, your poem elicited a lot of responses. It's a lovely, complex poem. The way that last line is italicized...

Erin said...

Most welcome. It's the first time I've ever stumbled on a discussion of my own work and it took me quite by surprise. I'm glad you liked it -- if you hadn't, I might have had to give up on the internet forever.