An Analysis of Katha Pollitt’s “A Chinese Bowl”

Celadon bowl
Celadon bowl | Source

Background

“A Chinese Bowl” is written by Katha Pollitt, a prolific writer. The poem appeared in The New Yorker on July 28, 2003.

Overview

“A Chinese Bowl” is a poem about a woman who purchases a bowl that reminds her of her past and present. She looks to this bowl as a potential means to fix her life. The light and dark seen in and on the bowl becomes an extended metaphor of the woman’s life. Celadon is the vehicle and the woman’s life is the tenor. The poet uses connotations and denotations of light and dark to draw the connection between the Chinese bowl and life.

Stanzas1 and 2

The first two stanzas utilize the connotation of dark in terms of a force of evil or darkness. “Plucked,” “chipped,” and “cast” are used to show the evil force as active. The bowl is forced or “plucked” from its place of stability. Chipped infers that the bowl has been mishandled at some point and bears the brunt of carelessness or force. No one-to-one correlation can be drawn for how “cast” is a force of ill intention. “Cast” has many connotations and denotations itself. In the context of forcefulness, “cast” can mean to throw something with force or violence, shape by mold, twist, turn, warp, or to slough off. All the aforementioned definitions are based off of an action being done to something stationary. But “cast” also means to project light or gloom or to calculate horoscope. In this context, “cast” can be a source of illumination or doom. Therefore the whole line “or cast by venetian blinds” becomes a symbol for control. One who operates the venetian blinds gets to determine how much air or light enters the room. The poet may be suggesting that the woman must decide which way her life will go. “Cast” visually appears in the middle of the first two stanzas, almost as a hinge or turning point. “Tint” appears in the line proceeding “cast.” Something that is tinted becomes altered or changed slightly. Instead of forcing the shift to occur, the change happens gradually. This tinting forms a crossroads in the poem between light and dark.

Stanzas 3 and 4

A gray area develops in stanzas three and four as light and dark combine. The phrase “inky nimbus” forms an oxymoron. The ink, heavy and dark, makes up the lighter (both in weight/pressure and in color) nimbus. The letter “O”s made up of “cutout moons” literally dot the page as stars do the night sky. Shades of gray develop as the halo forms around the actual typed letter. Looking back to the meaning of “cast” for calculating horoscopes, the introduction of heavenly bodies in the night sky becomes quite appropriate. As the letters are “stamped” or cast on the page, the woman’s horoscope forms. If the woman likes what she sees or not is uncertain, but she begins to write her own story. The play the woman writes as a young girl combines light and dark as well. “Bean Soup and Rice” as a dish has light and dark components. When the two items are mixed together in a bowl before eating, they become a shade in-between the two formally distinct colors. The premise of the play also merges light and dark. The girl in the play is poor, a dark prospect, and is saved by a rabbit, a source of luckiness that brings hope (light). The young girl as a writer subverts the idea of a person’s lot being cast. The poet suggests that “cast” does not mean that something is permanently fixed the way it is cast.

The gray space previously created in the poem vanishes at the end of stanza five into stanza six, and the stark contrast of light and dark reappears. Suddenly “Fluorescent / light spills cleanly” into a room. Apparent is the arrival of enlightenment. The poet takes something that is already an absolute, “light,” attributes another absolute, “fluorescent,” to it and caps the description off with an adjective that is an absolute, “cleanly.” The moment becomes even more luminous by being juxtaposed to words considered dark and ominous: “hides,” “blacklist,” “Party business,” “drink,” and “death.” The swift arrival of the wording reinforces the suddenness of reaching an epiphany in the form of a metaphor: “This is happiness.” The balance of light and dark, not the co-mingling of them, leads to contentment. This epiphany reflects the belief of yin and yang. Now the woman is able to see, in stanzas eight and nine, how the dichotomy of light and dark create balance: “green/gray,” “shadow/sun,” and “stirring/still air.” Therefore, the only way for the woman to express her current state is through not only a dichotomy of dark (as in heavy)/ light (as in weight) but also a simile: “a feeling gathers, heavy / as rain about to fall.”

Potential for What It All Means

The woman can only find an answer to her current dilemma by looking to something that is light and dark. Celadon can be light—in terms of weight—depending on the type of vessel manufactured. In terms of color, celadon can be many shades of light or pale green. But celadon can also be dark in terms of weight, depending on how big the piece is. And, in terms of color, some pieces have gray variegations, which look dark in comparison to the green glaze. By looking to this celadon bowl for an answer, the woman brings yet another aspect of light and dark to celadon. Like looking for an answer by reading tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, this woman looks to the bowl and its contents, also a dichotomy of light and dark (clear/clouded water and renew/fallen), for her horoscope.

Conclusion

The bowl can bring light as in hope and promise, or the bowl can bring darkness in the form of doom, meaning the woman will never find happiness again. Looking to a “chipped” bowl foreshadows that her life might be fixed temporarily (like gluing a bowl back together) but it will always be susceptible to further damage. One needs both parts, good and bad, for balance and happiness.

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