Cathy Song Essay - Critical Essays

Cathy Song American Literature Analysis

Song’s poetry generally deals with her personal experience as a woman with family roots in Hawaii and with ancestral and kinship ties to Korea and China. Although her subject matters revolve around regional, ethnic, and private experiences, they are expressed in idioms evidently inseparable from her formal training in Western culture. Her interest in art also comes through unmistakably in the visual qualities of her poems, especially in those inspired by family photographs, paintings by O’Keeffe, and prints by eighteenth century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro. In her poetry, Song often affectionately thematizes about family ties by providing portraits of and stories about family members in language that is both contemplative and dramatic, retrospective and prospective, moving freely between past and present and between observation and speculation. Because her memory of the past often merges with the reality of the present as if the two were indivisible, there is a lively immediacy to her poems.

Many of her poems employ the second-person pronoun, thus simulating a conversational style, which in turn is characterized by frequent understatements. Deceptively prosaic at times, her language has in store delightful surprises of images and a variety of emotions ranging from sadness to humor. Initially, readers such as Richard Hugo tended to see Song’s poems as “flowers—colorful, sensual and quiet—offered almost shyly as bouquets.” In his 1986 review of Picture Bride, however, Stephen Sumida cautioned that “Song’s poems seem especially liable to being appreciated or criticized for the wrong reasons” and suggested that her work deserves an alternative approach.

Although Song is one of the most visible of Asian American poets, her poetry, curiously, has not generated critical attention and acclaim proportionate to her phenomenal emergence as a member of the Yale Series of Younger Poets and her inclusion in prestigious anthologies. Picture Bride attracted a handful of reviews, and her second book, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, though published by a commercial publisher, received hardly more than a couple. Furthermore, the few reviews that did appear, though positive, are somewhat reserved about the merits of Song’s work. The mixed reception of her poetry may have resulted from the small readership of poetry in general and of Asian American poetry in particular or from the fact that Song’s output has been rather modest.

A significant factor affecting her reception, however, appears to be that Song, despite (and because of) her initial success, has been faced with the same predicament by which most Asian American writers are plagued: to explore their ethnicity explicitly often subjects them to risks of exoticism (if the ethnic experience is noticed) or marginality (when such experience is assumed to be beneath notice). As Song warily put it in a 1983 interview, “I’ll have to try not to write about the Asian-American theme,” although such a focus is “a way of exploring the past.” Song’s statement is essentially a reflection on the artificial dilemma, between ethnicity (“Asian”) and the mainstream (“American”) culture, that is deeply ingrained in the literature of the United States. As a poet, Song deserves special attention for her struggle to bridge the hiatus—not so much by circumventing ethnicity as by concentrating on her personal experience as a woman. This effort is reflected in the introduction to Sister Stew, where she and coeditor Kono proclaim the primacy of women’s experience and assert the plenitude of women’s voices. This introduction, in retrospect, could also serve as an introduction to Song as “a poet who happens to be Asian American.”

The effort to bridge the hiatus discussed above is already evident in the textual history of Song’s Picture Bride, a collection of thirty-one poems covering a range of topics including family history, life in Hawaii, childhood memories, sibling relationships, love, art, character studies, ethnic experience, and the quest of the self. The book is organized according to two interrelated frameworks or principles. To take the title poem as the focal text, the book is apparently a collection of poems structured around the immigration and assimilation experience of the Song family, beginning with the arrival of her Korean grandparents—her grandmother in particular. Seen from this perspective, the book is essentially autobiographical in nature, with the poems serving as miniature memoirs and chronicles of the family’s history and as memories of parents, relatives, and siblings. It is important to note, however, that such an ethnicized principle of organization was not Song’s idea but her publisher’s.

Even as it stands, the book, which Song originally intended to title From the White Place, also incorporates another framework of organization. This framework is derived from a five-part sequence, “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe,” a poem placed at the center of the collection. The subtitles of the volume’s five divisions (“Black Iris,” “Sunflower,” “Orchids,” “Red Poppy,” and “The White Trumpet”), which were suggested to Song by Kathleen Spivak, in fact come from this strategically positioned text. Used as a structuring device, these subtitles imply that the book can be perceived as a poet’s attempt, by way of visual art (the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and Kitagawa Utamaro), to fashion personal experience into esthetic experience and thereby define her vision as an artistic one.

Reading the book according to this framework tends to deemphasize the ethnic elements of the poems, but the risk of viewing the book as an ethnographic document is also reduced. Such an artist’s framework is not without its problems, as it poses the danger of diminishing the peculiarity of Song’s experience and her voice. Taken alone, neither of the two frameworks is entirely satisfactory, but as Fujita-Sato explains, “What results . . . from the interlocked frameworks provided by the book’s title and sections titles, is a structure embodying synthesis.” Corresponding to this synthesis, Fujita-Sato proposes, is the technique of “singing shapes” derived from O’Keeffe’s paintings, by which two often dissimilar objects are juxtaposed and become mutually illuminated and transformed into “a fluid shaping and reshaping of energy.”

The motivation toward synthesis in Picture Bride is further developed in Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, in which Song concentrates on personal experiences in various stages of her life as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and Hawaiian and Asian American woman. In this collection, her voice as a poet who is not only a woman but also an artist also matures. The volume consists of twenty-six poems and is divided into four parts (“The Window and the Field,” “A Small Light,” “Shadow Figures,” and “Frameless Windows, Squares of Light”) that are named after the title poems of each section. The organization recalls but transcends that of Picture Bride; the aesthetic rendition of personal experience no longer relies on the appeal of ethnic elements or the authority of another artist but rather disseminates from the play and interplay of framed and frameless blocks and touches of light and shadow—vignettes of life as lived.

The higher level of unity in this second collection also stems from Song’s technique—related to that of “singing shapes”—of juxtaposing and transposing (or compressing) different segments of time, in the manner a telescope is collapsed or expanded, so that memories of the past and realities of the present merge into one another. For example, she shows how what happened to herself and her brother as children in the past would recur, with variations, in the present when she looks upon her son and daughter growing up. This unique approach to experience, by which the personal is merged with the familial and the mundane is elevated to the aesthetic, suggests that Song’s attempt to bridge the hiatus, and hence resolve the dilemma confronting Asian American writers, is, in fact, feasible.

Song continues with similar efforts in bridging the hiatus between the mundane and the aesthetic in her third collection, School Figures, in which she concentrates on the local world of Hawaii’s Asian American communities, exploring personal experiences of family, history, ethnicity, and cultural conflicts. Such personal explorations further intensify in her fourth collection, The Land of Bliss, in which the poet embarks on extended narratives about the sickness and dying of her mother, and the pain and suffering of those affected by her, and about life itself in its many spectacular or quotidian ways; such moments, and their attendant memories of warmth and fondness, however, are invariably recollected for the purposes of transformation, through poetic...

(The entire section is 3684 words.)