Study Guide

Picture Bride

by Cathy Song

Picture Bride Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Picture Bride,” the title poem with which Song’s volume begins, serves as the seminal text of the collection, in a way defining the thematic direction of the book. In this poem, the poetic persona, aged twenty-four, attempts to imagine what it was like for her maternal grandmother, at the age of twenty-three, to leave Korea for Hawaii to marry a laborer thirteen years her senior, a man she had never seen before. The entire poem, except for the first three lines, consists of a series of questions intended to re-create not only the scenes of the departure, the journey, and the arrival but also the psychology and emotions of the picture bride throughout the process. The concluding question, which speculates on how willing she might have been with regard to her conjugal obligation (“did she politely untie/ the silk bow of her jacket,/ her tent-shaped dress”), focuses an entire economic and sociohistorical phenomenon onto the question of sexuality, making the poem linger on a moment of truth in human terms. This ability to crystalize the general into the personal is characteristic of Song’s poetry.

The figure of the picture bride serves as a muse of sorts for the poet, in part because the questions raised in “Picture Bride” are either answered or contextualized in the volume’s other poems. For example, in “Untouched Photograph of Passenger,” Song contemplates the picture of a man dressed in a poorly tailored suit who is gazing into the...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Picture Bride Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Fujita-Sato, Gayle K. “‘Third World’ as Place and Paradigm in Cathy Song’s Picture Bride.” MELUS 15, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 49-72. This intricate and meticulous essay proposes an innovative framework for reading both Song’s work and ethnic writing in general. Fujita-Sato sees places and people as points from which to view ethnic experience and cultural synthesis. She pays special attention to “Picture Bride,” “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe,” “Blue Lantern,” “Hotel Geneve,” “The White Porch,” “From the White Place,” “Easter Wahiawa, 1959,” and “Leaving.”

Lim, Shirley. “Reconstructing Asian-American Poetry: A Case for Ethnopoetics.” MELUS 14, no. 2 (Summer, 1987): 51-63. Lim makes a case for an ethno-centered reading of Asian American poetry, outlining three levels at which ethnopoetics functions—stylistic traits of diction or figurative language, linguistic inclusions of Asian languages, and use of ethnic background and allusions. Lim refers to Song’s use of imagery that is specifically Asian American in Picture Bride.

Lim, Shirley. Review of Picture Bride. MELUS 10, no. 3 (Fall, 1983): 95-99. Lim notes that kinship is the primary theme of the collection. Lim sees Song’s ability to merge organic imagery with emotion and form as her major strength. The only weakness that Lim describes is an overuse of linguistic conventions to present Asian American culture, rendering a few of Song’s metaphors strained and unbelievable.

Sumida, Stephen H. “Pictures of Art and Life.” Contact II 7, nos. 38-40 (1986): 52-55. A highly informed and penetrating analysis of Song’s imagery, narrative element, and dramatic monologue. Sumida is a leading authority on Hawaiian American literature, and he brings his expertise and sensibility to bear in his analysis of the book, especially of the poems “Picture Bride,” “The Youngest Daughter,” “The Seamstress,” and “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe” (to which Sumida devotes half of his article).

Wallace, Patricia. “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove.” MELUS 18, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 3-19. Wallace distinguishes the literary from the literal in the works of minority women poets, “literary” being the poet’s ability to manipulate language to express, and “literal” being the poet’s attempt to reflect knowledge from experience. She examines how these two impulses function independently even as they appear together in a work. Although Wallace’s discussion of Song centers on Song’s second book, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, Wallace does specifically refer to the poem “Picture Bride.”