Cathy Song, a Chinese American writer, focuses on the family in much of her work. Her poem "The Youngest Daughter" explores the relationship between mother and daughter.
The poem written in free verse uses graphic images to portray the harshness of aging and the responsibility of the child to her parent. Told with first person point of view, the narrator is the poet herself. Her simplistic language directs the reader to understand the limitations of both characters: the elderly parent and the responsible child.
Song begins by conveying the anguish of the daughter. Viewing the world bleakly, the narrator's skin is pale and moist; and her eyes burn when touched. She suffers from migraines, and her mother massages her face to ease the pain.
On this day, the daughter bathe's her mother who is in a good mood. She even jokes about her large breasts floating in the water. As she washes them, the daughter is reminded that she and her siblings have nursed from these breasts. Her mother, an insulin dependent diabetic, is covered with bruises. Receiving her daughter's touches with her eyes closed, the other sighs complacently. The two share this intimate moment as though this is the way it has always been.
After the mother rests, she prepares the Chinese ritual of tea and rice along with fish for her and her daughter. Silently eating together, the mother knows that the daughter wishes that she could escape. The narrator toasts her mother just as cranes symbolically fly up into the sky.
...a thousand cranes curtain the window,
fly up in a sudden breeze.
The daughter lovingly cares for her mother, now in the winter of her life. The poem conveys a warmth between the two, but the tone is different. Even though the narrator loves her mother, she realizes that she has become tied to her. The daughter's own body has lost its vibrancy to the imprisonment of care giving. Lacking the freedom desired by any person, the mother's aged rituals have consumed the daughter. Her mother's ancient body betrays her quick mind because she knows her daughter longs for independence.
The Oriental culture demands that the young take care of the elderly. Usually, when the grandparents or parents cannot live by themeselves, they move in with their children. Consequently, it is the duty of this daughter who might not have other responsibilties to attend her parent. It is required. The bitterness comes through in the poet's description of her own unhealthy demeanor and the duties and rituals she must perform. These experiences seem endless to the narrator.
It seems it has always
been like this:
the two of us
in this sunless room...
"The Youngest Daughter" depicts a caring, yet bitter relationship between the daughter and the mother. The mother knows her child wants to be free; however, she needs her. Song, in her imagery, places the reader into the bath setting exposing both the parent and child. Her flowing words lead to the obvious climax and metaphor of the birds surrounding her window, flying off to soar and live freely. Something that the poet longs for as well.