Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Heaven” appears toward the end of Frameless Windows, Squares of Light. By this time, the poet has already married and is the mother of a son and a daughter. The son, who has blond hair (which comes from his father), “thinks when we die we’ll go to China,” causing the mother to pause at the thought of “a Chinese heaven.” The poet further imagines how her son’s hand “must span like a bridge/ to reach it.” She continues to wonder how such an idea could occur to her son, as she herself has never seen China. As the question of identity and ethnicity is pressed, the poet’s thoughts are rerouted to a historical time when a boy in southern China started his long journey to the United States to make a living at the gold mines and the railroad, indefinitely prolonging his stay. Switching back to the present, the poet muses that “It must be in the blood,/ this notion of returning./ It skipped two generations, lay fallow,/ the garden an unmarked grave.” This realization, triggered by the innocent thoughts of a child, leads the poet to call to the children to look to where “we can see the mountains/ shimmering blue above the air.”
Although one of the themes in “Heaven” is innocence, this poem obviously contradicts Song’s earlier statement that she would try not to write on the Asian American theme. Her observation that “it must be in the blood” can be seen as a bold correction of that earlier declaration. The question of returning to China is a symbolic rather than a practical concern, especially after an entire generation of Asian American writers has worked furiously to establish the legitimacy of Asian Americans as Americans. Yet the poem raises a fundamental issue about the nature of Song’s poetry in particular and American literature in general: To what extent is it possible, or desirable, to purge the American experience of ethnicity? Song’s return to this issue is an important signal because, unlike her earlier, mostly retrospective treatments of the Asian American experience, “Heaven” involves a future generation and is forward-looking. The fact that Song can raise such a controversial issue at all intimates the arrival of another stage in the Asian American writer’s search for identity.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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Chun, Gary. “Poet Sings of Journey of Life.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 11, 2002.
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Song, Cathy. “Cathy’s Song: Interview with Cathy Song.” Interview by David Choo. Honolulu Weekly 4 (June 15, 1994): 6-8.
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