Like her two other remarkable and prize-winning books of poetry, Marilyn Chin’s Rhapsody in Plain Yellow is a volume of finely crafted poems characterized by brilliant imagery, intricate personal and sociopolitical turns of thought, and a richly allusive style. With sensitivity, with eloquence, and frequently in anger, she expresses the woe of being a woman, the quandary of being bicultural, and the bereavement of a great love rapt away by death. The title of the book itself is an indicator of Chin’s complex and allusive sensibility. The image of yellow in the title alludes to the author’s Chinese ancestry but it also points to the effects of aging, to the privileges and perils attendant on that color (from precious metals to alluring blondes), and to William Carlos Williams’s use of yellow in his 1917 poem “Love Song” (partially quoted in Chin’s epigraph).
In fact, the three lines from Williams’s poem establish an important keynote for Chin’s book: “The stain of love/ Is upon the world/ Yellow, yellow, yellow.” In Williams’s poem, yellow represents love, and it is a crepuscular yellow that stains and smears and eats into all existence just before the whole twilit world goes dark. This uneasy keynote of yellow is riffed upon in Chin’s poem “Blues on Yellow” which is italicized and positioned as a preface to this volume. Through a series of haunting repetitions and echoes, Chin makes her reader realize that yellow emblematizes the Chinese experience in America when she mentions “gold” and “railroad” (since the colloquial Chinese name for the United States is Gold Mountain and Chinese labor was mainly responsible for the construction of railroads in the American West). It also strikes the note of love, a love between individuals of differing ancestry (canary and crow), and it is also a love that is lost to death. Indeed, death is a force very much to be reckoned with in the book, as in its prefatory poem, where the death of a mate and the death of a mother are mourned and where death concludes a painful lifetime of seemingly maladroit struggle to become an artist (“I’ll teach my yellow toes to write”) and to be an activist (“I’ll teach my yellow feet to fight”). In fact, death can eventually take the form of a nostalgia for Nirvana, where reincarnation ceases: “ . . . Buddha sings in my veins./ O take me to the land of the unreborn, there’s no life on earth without pain.”
As one might expect from this prefatory poem, many poems of this book deal with the condition of being Chinese in America, which is not depicted as a hospitable host country to her duskier immigrants. In “Millenium, Six Songs,” for example, Chin presents this series of images:
Black swollen fruit dangling on a limb Red forgotten flesh sprayed across the prairie Parched brown vines creeping over the wall Yellow winged pollen, invisible enemies
Each image represents an American minority group with a reminder of its maltreatment in America—the blacks who were lynched, the “red” Indians who suffered near genocide, the brown Mexicans who are stereotyped as illegal immigrants, and the diasporic yellow Asians who, though guiltless, were herded into concentration camps. In addition to such critiques of American society, several poems deal with the anxiety of assimilation, the sense of loss of their originary cultures that occurs as immigrants acculturate into American society. Thus, in a poem about her thirty-sixth birthday, Chin regrets her aging as well as her forgetting:
That half is almost gone,
the Chinese half,
The fair side of a peach,
Darkened by the knife of time. . . .
(Incidentally, it should be noted that each line of this poem is sliced into two halves by the printing and that the peach is a Chinese symbol of longevity, even of immortality.) The title of another poem wryly notes that “The Colonial Language Is English,” the language with which she perforce writes and by which her mind is presumably colonized. In “Identity Poem (#99),” reminiscent of her own Oregon childhood experience, Chin asks: “Are you the sky—or the allegory for loneliness?/ Are you the only Chinese restaurant in Roseburg, Oregon?/ A half-breed war orphan—adopted by proper Christians?”
If the immigrant’s experience of America is troubled by angst, the memory of the originary land across the Pacific is also often fraught with pain and peril even as it recalls a rich and fabulous past. “Cauldron,” for instance, a poem whose stanza form visually recapitulates the Chinese vessel, is interlarded with allusions to the glorious Chou dynasty city of Xian (c. 1000...
(The entire section is 1911 words.)