Explain the meaning of the poem "Heaven" by Cathy Song.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A Chinese woman, the descendant of immigrants who moved to the United States to build the railroad, ruminates on the desire of a boy, probably her son, to return to China. He has never seen China and is part Caucasian, which we know by his "blond hair, /the part that...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

A Chinese woman, the descendant of immigrants who moved to the United States to build the railroad, ruminates on the desire of a boy, probably her son, to return to China. He has never seen China and is part Caucasian, which we know by his "blond hair, /the part that belongs to his father," but he stills longs for his ancestral homeland.

The speaker describes the desired China, where the boy imagines everyone will look like him, as "that blue flower ... bluer than the sea."

The speaker continues in her thoughts by weaving the current boy's desire for China together with the hope the original "boy" who came here had to return to his homeland, a wish that remained unfulfilled. The speaker contrasts the landscape of the United States, with its "pancake plains" and air thin enough to "starve" on, to the imagined beauties of China.

The narrator ponders how the ancestral desire for a homeland can emerge in a boy several generations removed from it. She wonders if this desire is genetic. However, as the poem moves on, it becomes clear that China is simply a stand in for "heaven," a place that is better and more perfect than the place where one is.

The imagery of blue is repeated throughout the poem, becoming a symbol of the dreamscape of longing, tying together China and heaven.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Cathy Song’s poem, “Heaven,” tells the story of the speaker’s family, both past and present. The poem begins describing the speaker’s son, who lives with her in the landlocked middle of the United States, announces that when they die, they’ll go to China. This causes the speaker to muse on China as a version of heaven. The speaker thinks back to her great-grandfather, how he came to America from China and worked to build the United States' railroads for just a dollar a day. He never intended to stay, we’re told, but he did. And now, generations later, the speaker’s American son, sporting blond hair from his father, still dreams of returning to China. “It must be in the blood,/ this notion of returning,” writes Song.

“Heaven” is about what it means to have a home and a homeland. The speaker thinks about how random it is that she’s ended up living where she does. “I’ve sat in this spot/ and wondered why here?” writes Song, “Why in this short life,/ this town, this creek they call a river?” The speaker marvels at how strong the family's bond is to China, a land neither she, nor her children, have ever been. “Heaven” is about these intergenerational, even genetic, ties that bind us to our ancestors and ancestral homelands.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Cathy Song’s poem, "Heaven," exemplifies the Romantic spirit by evoking nostalgia and separation. In the poem, a woman who is disconnected from her Chinese heritage longs for her ancestral homeland that she has never seen. She is amused by her son’s notion that "when we die we’ll go to China."  

As the idea takes hold of her imagination, she compares her idealized view of China with the familiar surroundings of "the pancake plains just east of the Rockies" where she lives. China serves as an escape from everyday life in the town with "broken fences, the whiny dog, the rattletrap cars" where she is isolated from Chinese culture. The only tangible connection the narrator has to China is a map and railroad track near her home that her immigrant great-grandfather helped to build.

Song’s writing employs figurative language to help her son to visualize the country of China from where his great-grandfather came.  The poet’s son believes that when he gets to the Chinese heaven that everyone will look as the boy does despite his inherited blonde hair.   

Using a metaphor of a “blue flower” to picture China on the map, the young boy has trouble imagining how far away it is from his home in Colorado.  The mother compares his hand to a bridge that when spread out is the equivalent of an octave on the piano.  That is the distance to China.

In comparison, the place where they live now is a dot on a map…not the beautiful flower that describes China. Nothing seems to be good about their home: thin air, no bamboo.  The flat mountains do not inspire the poet so she uses the metaphor of a pancake to paint their image.

In the next stanza, the sensory appeal becomes auditory.  The whistles of the trains, the whiny cars, and the noisy cars fill the ear as the sounds did in the old west. There were gun fights and fistfights then.  Often, the poet sat in a particular spot and wondered why they were there in this particular place.

Her grandfather brought his family to this place with the intention of moving back after he earned enough. Her ancestor worked building the railroads for one dollar per day. Finally, he accepted the fact that he would always be there and that he would die after having seen California.

It must be in the blood,

This notion of returning!

It skipped two generations, lay fallow,

The garden of an unmarked grave.

This desire to return to China is compared to a graveyard that will yield up this new generation to find their roots. There is a genetic connection to China expressed by the narrator’s belief that "It must be in the blood, this notion of returning." One day, she calls her son and tells him that if he looks really hard he can see all the way to heaven.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team