Inspired by a line in the title poem of the book, the publisher’s advertisement characterizes School Figures as a collection of “poems like an ice skater’s school figures—the pen moving silently and deliberately across a white expanse of paper, tracing memory and experience, bringing pressure to bear upon the blade of language to unlock ‘the invisible fire beneath the ice.’” The blurb is not inaccurate insofar as it highlights the understated intensity of memory and experience frequently found in Cathy Song’s poetry. To readers familiar with her two previous collections—Picture Bride (1983) and Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988)—School Figures would, apart from satisfying their expectations, also meet them with surprises. While many of the poems continue to explore with vigor previously charted terrains, such as family, ethnicity, and art, discernibly different themes (including death, husband-and-wife relationships) and visions (particularly those related to the female body) have also emerged in this book.
School Figures appears to be a heterogeneous collection, but judging by the content of the title poem of each section, one suspects that the poet is preoccupied with (among other things) the interrelationships across generations and cultures (“Points of Reference”), the sense of community and kinship among women (“The Grammar of Silk”), filial piety and emotions (“The Hotel by the Lake”), and conjugal sentiments (“Things We Know by Heart”). In addition, the two epigraphs of the volume also provide clues to the general themes of these materials. The first, from a poem by Christina Rossetti, affirms and celebrates love and life in the same breath: “Because the birthday of my life/ Is come, my love is come to me”; the second, by Elizabeth Bishop, laments the onslaught of loss but seeks to neutralize it by means of humor and perseverance: “I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or/ next-to-last, of three loved houses went./ The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” The affirmation of life, the celebration of love, and the containment of loss—these are indeed some of the major themes of the collection. Aside from the semblance of unity suggested here, since no apparent chronology or thematic progression can be found in the volume, each poem has to be judged by its own merits.
Dedicated to the poet’s daughter, Rachel, the book opens with “The Story of Madeline,” a delightful poem inspired by the Madeline series of adventure books for children written and illustrated by the Austrian-American artist, Ludwig Bemelmans. The poem depicts Madeline, a small schoolgirl in Paris who “champions the underdog” and “brings to their knees the board of trustees.” As “a mischief-maker, a nonconformer” who breaks “the monotonous bread/ of a schoolgirl’s life,” Madeline “is what every good story needs.” As a mother, Song has opened up for her readers the little child’s world to which she is privy. Though small, it is a world of conflicts between generations. In “Old Story,” as the poet humorously and yet painfully narrates, she is shocked and saddened to hear her daughter say that she has dreamed of her mother’s death: “In her dreams I imagine I’ve died a hundred deaths./ Death by water,/ Death by fire,/ Death by woman-eating daughter.” In spite of the mother’s tender love and care of the daughter over the years, the relationship has somehow been poisoned, to the point that the poet/mother has to question the daughter, “when will you rest and believe/ I was mad with joy the spring you were born?” Interestingly, as the opening of the poem suggests, the narrator also sees a reflection of herself in her daughter; perhaps there is a realization that her mother before her must have also felt betrayed in a similar manner.
The double perspective of being a daughter and a mother is crucial to Cathy Song’s treatment of cross-generational issues. In some poems, the speaker is the mother; in others, she is the daughter. In yet others, the roles of both mother and daughter are telescoped in such a way that they are difficult to tell part. Employing such a double perspective, which is further compounded by the different cultural backgrounds of the generational roles, the poet seeks to establish (as the title of one poem suggests) “Points of Reference.”
As the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother, Song finds her mother’s folk ways to be a source of amusement, bewilderment, and perhaps also embarrassment as well as wisdom. In “Mother on River Street,” the poet characterizes her mother’s (and aunts’) conversations as “streams of unconsciousness” and “Cantonese soliloquies” that “make for a dizzy luncheon”; the mother’s reference to her husband as a “Lau Gung” (husband) who cannot tolerate her gossip strikes the daughter as “forty years slapped into two syllables.” In “A Conservative View,” the daughter satirizes the mother’s life philosophy of “the conservation of money”: “I was convinced my friends knew/ that the birthday gifts I presented at parties/ were wrapped in leftover sheets of our bathroom wallpaper.” Predictably, cultural conflicts abound in the mother-daughter poems. For example, in “Sunworshippers,” after hearing her mother’s lecture that sunbathers love themselves too much and that nobody will marry a woman whose skin “is sunbaked and dried up like beef jerky,” the daughter rebels and willfully turns anorexic: “the less I ate, the less/ there was of me to love.”
Paradoxically, however, a hint of pride and appreciation is often infused into such conflicts and satires. These mixed feelings...
(The entire section is 2335 words.)