Two Poems

The Calligrapher


Try grasping a piece of wood

between your thumb, middle

& ring finger – as if the drip-

dripping of ink was a typhoon

you could play in. Loosen the

right wrist, scrape the weight

of too-much from brush/heart

across ink bowl; let its round

rim reassure. Sculpt the brush-

tip till shrill: sharp as papercut.

Let ink seep: a dot, a line, then

a mad dash to the last stroke till

interlocking arms form terraced

paddies bursting with meaning:

the character fortune made up of

the shirt on your back, the roof

over your head & the promise

of a stomach satisfied with rice.




When people ask why, reply:

my mother wished I would

write with the grace of those

ancient Chinese poets whose

tapestry now slips easily from

my ten-year-old tongue into a

diptych of shapes. Hour upon

hour, my wrist aches as the ink

dries to a crust. My eyes blink

back water, but this is precisely

the moment to continue. Once

more the fingers dip, slide, lift.

I am not a dancer, but this is

a dance. My mother tells me:

see how Chinese characters are

sunflowers that seek out the eyes.

Seeds of ink unfurl suddenly from

your wrist, blooming into time –




The Importance of Tea


When your aunt arrived, she asked for normal tea, which, to my untrained ears, sounded a bit like normality. In Hong Kong, normal tea is green, or white, or red. It took my mind several moments to move from green to white to red to land on black. Your aunt was flexible: any Assam, Darjeeling, or Earl Grey? We only had Matcha, some loose-leaf Iron-Buddha in the cupboard, no milk. Your aunt looked at you as if you’d failed at being British, me as if I’d failed to properly assimilate. After, you said I was projecting onto your aunt the fears I harboured. No matter how many years I’ve spent in this country, how I interpret normal tea, what is normal to me. You are learning Mandarin Chinese. I see how the characters are split for you: signifier and signified refuse to conjoin. That’s what happened when your aunt asked for the normal tea. When a waiter brought white sugar for our Sencha green, I caught your gaze. We laughed and left the sachets unopened.


 is a poet, editor and academic from Hong Kong. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, and came Second in the 2017 National Poetry Competition. Her debut pamphlet, A Hurry of English, was published in 2018 by ignitionpress, and was recently selected as the 2018 Poetry Book Society Summer Pamphlet Choice. Mary Jean is a Ledbury Poetry Critic and an editor of Oxford PoetryHer debut collection will be published by Faber in July 2019.



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