In the last poem in this book, Cathy Song writes: “The world for me is the piece of cloth/ I have at the moment beneath my hands./ I am not surprised/ by how little the world changes.” The speaker is a seamstress, an unmarried maker of wedding dresses, but as she stitches, her quiet vision is the vision of the poet herself. The seamstress’ hands “take . . . miraculous flight”; they are “moist and white like lilies”; they are the “white gloved hands of the magician.” In their pale purity, their only apparently commonplace craft, and their underlying magical power, they resemble Song’s poems. For the poems, too, present themselves as delicate flowers. They, too, have the toughness and power of growing things and the gift of moving from the everyday to the surety and wonder of art.
These images—whiteness, hands, flowers—appear throughout the collection, and their reappearances, echoing from poem to poem, constitute one of the threads that weaves the book into a whole, a fabric richer than the sum of its constituent parts. There is, for example, the whiteness of a young Japanese woman applying powder to her neck:
The light is the insidesheen of an oyster shell,sponged with talc and vapor,moisture from a bath . . .the nape of her neckand the curve of a shoulderlike the slope of a hillset deep in snow in a countryof huge white solemn birds.
There are the gloved hands, in “January,” of the father of the poet’s unborn child, hands that assisted at the birthing of another baby. This father goes “to stand in the white field” and the remembered weight of that other child leads him—or the poet, whose imagination gives her the feel of that weight—to realize “How surprisingly/ heavy and determined/ new life is, pressing itself/ like snow upon the existing structures.” There are the hands of “A Pale Arrangement of Hands,” in which the poet moves from her own taut fists to the memory of her mother’s hands, nervous and confident, to a new understanding of what her mother’s life was like, rearing “three mild lunatics . . . in a chicken-coop house.” It is images such as these, drawn from the ordinary, that make connections and bridges, that give meaning to the poet’s life and, in turn, to the reader’s.
Flowers, in fact, name the five sections of the book: “Black Iris,” “Sunflower,” “Orchids,” “Red Poppy,” and “The White Trumpet Flower.” These same flowers provide the section titles of a poem inspired by the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, one of two artists to whose flowery visions of women Song pays tribute in the book’s central section; the other is the eighteenth century woodblock artist, Kitagawa Utamaro. The ordering of the poems here is skilled; the reader is led from the melancholic and fragile beauty of Utamaro’s depictions to the poem “Ikebana,” in which Song describes the artful preparations and restrictions of the female body for the sake of a refined beauty that, like a Japanese flower arrangement, appears “like a spontaneous accident.” The clincher is the last poem in the section, the one based on the work of O’Keeffe. It celebrates a woman artist, not a male artist’s woman. It insists, finally, on the strength of women, the toughness and autonomy that sustain constricted, delicate blooms. O’Keeffe figures again as an embodiment of womanly courage in “From the White Place,” which is dedicated to her; the poem ends:
Out on the pink mesa,the soft sandstone glowedlike the belly of a salmon.I began breathing for the first time today,knowing the first breath would hurt.
Song seems to be powerfully...