Featured Poem

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 visualised
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.


Comment by Jee Leong Koh on the poem:

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 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.


Reprinted by the author’s permission, the poem appears in Joshua Ip’s recent volume of verse making love with scrabble tiles (Math Paper Press). Jee Leong Koh’s comment first appeared in ASIAN Geographic THE READ Singapore.


Making Love with Scrabble Tiles - Joshua Ip - POE

Joshua Ip has published two volumes of poetry: sonnets from the singlish (2012) – 44 sonnets on growing up in Singapore; and making love with scrabble tiles (2013) – 44 poems on love and language. His poetry and short stories have been published in various print and online journals, and he is the first-prize winner of the Golden Point Award 2013 for the short story “The Man Who Turned Into a Photocopier.” He is currently working on his first graphic novel, after the flood. He still wants to be a writer when he grows up.


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

One comment

  1. datta2014

    Such a beautifully crafted poem in which the poet meaningfully clothed in the metaphor “cranes” so much of significance and melody. Appreciate it. By the time you unfold the crane, you get so much .


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