What is the theme of the poem "Sunworshippers" by Cathy Song?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cathy Song, an Asian writer, creates beautiful images in her poetry.  Her poems are written in free verse, with her diction and style providing interesting, meaningful verse. The subjects covered by her poetry usually emphasize the family and relationships.

“Sunworshippers” follows Song’s usual style with the exception of her topic: anorexia and its impact.  The narration is told in first person with an unknown narrator.  Some of the poem’s images deliver unpleasant images although each word picture aptly applies to the topic.

Her literary devices provide unforgettable visual imagery.  

  • Sun bathers= metaphorical sacrifices to the sun; the simile compares their bodies to glistening [from sweat] raw fish lying dead in the market
  • The body=metaphorical temple that is worshipped in secret [a key word]; the clothes compared to a revival tent

Thematically, the poem addresses the topic of dysmorphia, body image, and the eating disorder, anorexia. Dysmorphia is a mental illness in which the sufferer focuses on a problematic part of the body.

The mother of the narrator emphasizes the importance of taking care of the body.  She encourages her children to wear hats and gloves in the sun. To the mother, importance should dwell on the body as a temple to be taken care of and worshipped.  

The mother’s influence taints the narrator’s appreciation of her body. The body was to be valued but not too much. Forcing her children to be cautious about the sun comes through as an apt concept to promote. On the other hand, making her children so different in a world that loves the sun and the human body may have paved the way for the speaker's obsession.

The mother taught her children to hide their bodies in “tent-sized clothes” and to show their bodies only in the bathroom.   The author also mentions the two holes that are used for eating and then elimination, coupled with an interesting image of the stool.

When the narrator falls into full blown anorexia, she admits that she enjoys her body most when she sees herself in the mirror:

I liked it best when standing before the mirror,
I seemed to be disappearing into myself,
breasts sunken into the cavity of my bird-cage chest…

She enjoys this view because the narrator looks forward to her complete disappearance. While she is in college, she dissolves into her books and music.

The ending of the poem is somewhat ambiguous.  Does the narrator lose herself in her books and music and mental illness? Her fasting may have deluded her thinking; consequently, she believed that she had committed suicide. On the other hand, completely devoid of sleep and food, the speaker may actually have thrown herself out of the window in an effort to completely fade away. Whether in her mind or in actuality, she left behind flowers and a cake. The poet expressed her demise as her “shining out of the world.” 

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