Chinese Brush Painting: A Lesson | Conflagration

Chinese Brush Painting: A Lesson  

To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
––Lao Tzu

Serenity will be found in the presence of these graceful grasses,
she tells us, mixing the ink and the water.

Short stick of hardened pine soot and glue, she wets this ink stick
pressing into inkstone.

A flute can be made of bamboo, she tells us.  The bamboo the vessel,
with breath-song softly passing through.

She shows us how to apply ink to the brush:  brush of white goat hair,
black rabbit hair, brown weasel hair.

Bamboo.  From the sound made in the forest, she tells us.
From the sound of hollow canes knocking together in the wind.

She paints the stalk – no corrections, no touch ups.  Just one confident
continuous stroke to the segmented nodal rings.

She tells a story:  A lonely bird rests in the forest after a long journey.  She is tired.
In her resting, she is struck by a bamboo pole, falling in the forest.

She pecks and pecks at the stalk.  She promises vengeance.
She pierces and punctures.  The stalk cracks in her determined beak.

And when the hollow cane opens, exposed to wind and air,
a man and a woman emerge from inside, she tells us.

The lonely bird reveals the first two humans.  Hiding in the bamboo stalk.
There, just waiting to unfold, she tells us.

Find the chi – the movement of the life force.  Become one
with the bamboo, she tells us.

Strive not for photographic likeness. This will always escape your brush.
Strive for the essence.  Express the essence of the bamboo.  Honor the bamboo.

Bamboo, summer flower and shoot.  Look to orchid in spring, chrysanthemum
in autumn, the plum blossom in winter. Today we are bamboo.

Strive for simplicity.  Find the life energy.  Lift the brush off the paper
with one, unbroken flow.  Use your whole arm.

Fingers gentle on the brush.  Like holding chopsticks.
Wrist, forearm, elbow, paint even through your shoulder.  Lift each one.

Now you go.  You do.   Do as I do.
Let spirit resonate in each stroke.

Bend with the wind, she tells us. Bend with the storm.
Bend with the rain, she tells us. Bend and never break.


You see how difficult this is. We watch
in our belted terry cloth robes, tugging
tighter at our waists. Cinching our middles
as if the frost would evaporate if we pull
our robes tighter to our center of gravity.

Above the frost we see your house dissolve
into charred ash. None of us could admit
at the time, but the flames are elegant
in the November sky. A time of burning
leaf stacks, of scorched marshmallows
sizzling our tongues. But tonight, we stand
and watch your house burn.

Once the flames are doused with water cannons,
I see a bureau of drawers, on its side, drawers
splayed open. As if the wind of the flames
pushed the bureau into its gaping.

And in the morning, you stand on my porch
holding a flannel pillowcase. Nubby
and washer-worn.  You hold it like a sack
of kittens destined to be drowned. Or like a sack
of mewling you rescued from the swamp,
from the choking by water hyacinth or aggressive
kelp. No matter. You clutch the sack. In two fists.

I should have made a midnight casserole for you.
This is what we do. A concoction of clotted cheese
and broccoli crowns. A splatter of eggs and plucked
dandelions. Flame yellow. A weed pie without
blackbirds singing.

But there is nothing in my hands to offer you.
You pass the pillowcase to me. Ask me to erase
the smother of smoke from the clothing in the case.
I nod my head yes because I have no words. I want
to do something. Anything.

When I open the pillowcase and pour its contents
on the bed:  a cedar chest’s worth of your lingerie.
Delicates. Strawberry lace panties. Blueberry brasseries
with push-the-breasts-up padding. A black licorice lace
garter edged with red ribbon. Two thigh high stockings,
fishnet plum, toes reinforced. So much lace. None of it singed.
None of it burning. But the smoke of the fire has taken up
residence in this bundle of lingerie. Imbedded its soot scent
a thousand and a thousand times into the netting,
into the silk seams,
into the vulnerable stitches
that promised to invite
and indulge
a smoldering intimacy.

About Marianne Peel

A middle/high school English teacher for 32 years, Marianne now nurtures her own creativity. She spent three summers teaching in China and received Fulbright Awards to Nepal and Turkey. Marianne’s poetry appears in Muddy River Review, Jelly Bucket, Comstock Review, among others. Her debut collection, No Distance Between Us, was published by Shadelandhouse Modern Press in 2021. Marianne has played flute/piccolo since 4th grade and creates afghans for friends in her spare time.

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