Evading Meaning, Folding Form

Koh Jee Leong on Joshua Ip's poem "explaining a thousand cranes"


explaining a thousand cranes

by Joshua Ip


            so this is how you fold a thousand cranes:

            one at a time. (approaching three a day,

            over the course of one year in the life

            of a boy with simply not much else to do.)


            it means as much as you want it to mean

            by saying which, maybe i did not mean

            as much as i should have—which is to say,

            there was no conscious love in any one crane!


            there was no moment when i, sleep-deprived

            and bleeding from a dozen paper cuts

            looked out into the night and visualized

            your face—and pressed on for just one—more—fold!


            even the sum converged to arbitrary:

            towards the end it seemed i could do more, or less—

            the main significance of the number at the last

            was that they do not sell glass jars that size in gift shops


            it wasn’t love, in the sense that one folds ‘love’

            like a fresh-cracked egg into the heart of each crane,

            more like a hobby or habit to adopt or quit

            learning to smoke, perhaps, or knit.


            just something that the fingers do, as the lungs

            do, as the liver does. one does not mean a thing like that.

            i folded a thought of cranes so deep within my mind

            i do not even remember folding one.


Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, was all the rage during my secondary school days. Nobody was making super-intricate sculptures; everyone was folding the same things, mostly hearts, from used bus tickets, but also cranes. We might have heard of the ancient legend, that folding a thousand cranes would make our wishes come true. It was a pretty story, but it was somehow irrelevant to what we were doing. The paper cranes bore little resemblance, anyway, to the Japanese crane that was supposed to fulfill our wishes. The folding was done for its own sake. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the folding was so absorbing because it was not over-burdened with meaning. Everything back then was so heavy with meaning—should we take up a Third Language besides English and our so-called Mother Tongue, and if so, should we study German, French or Japanese? Folding a sheet of paper, so light in our hands, spoke to us without words. It spoke of mindlessness.

Joshua Ip’s poem, from his book making love with scrabble tiles (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013), shares that evasion of meaning. The title “explaining a thousand cranes” is a false promise. Right from the start, the poem engages in diversionary tactics. “so this is how you fold a thousand cranes,” the poem instructs, but what follows is not an explanation of valley and mountain folds, reverse folds, squash folds, pleats, and sinks, but the wry observation, “one [crane] at a time.” Folding turns out to mean as much as you want it to mean, and so it means nothing. Even the final tally—one thousand—is arbitrary. There is nothing to explain.

But the burden of meaning that the poem evades does not come from the school of languages; it comes from the school of love. I think you think I think you think I think you think I think…. “explaining a thousand cranes” concludes a book of poems that are preoccupied with making sense of love. The poems are brightly witty, strongly patterned (many are sonnets), and highly conscious. The final poem of the book “explaining a thousand cranes” relinquishes that verbal struggle with meaning. It exchanges “making love with scrabble tiles” for folding paper cranes, a wordless activity.

But since poems have to be made from words, with their freight of meaning, “explaining a thousand cranes” takes the shape of a series of evasions culminating in denial. These evasions show, however, the form of what they try to evade. To say that one thousand cranes would not fit into any glass jar is to confess that one had thought of making a paper offering to love, and had even gone from gift shop to gift shop to look for a suitable container. The disavowals of the poem thus speak the vows of love. The poet does not remember folding the paper birds because they are folded so deeply in his mind. It is, after all, like learning a language.


from Bite Harder: Open Letters and Close Readings by Koh Jee Leong (Singapore: Ethos Books, forthcoming in 2018)