Cathy Song’s poetry is rooted in her own experience and that of her family. She explores especially the role of women, often focusing on her mother and grandmother as well as on her own relationships with her children. Many of her poems focus on the female body—warm poems about pregnancy and sensuality such as “The White Porch” (from Picture Bride); troubled poems about aging such as “The Youngest Daughter” (from Picture Bride); poems about eating and eating disorders such as “Sunworshippers” and “Eat” (both from School Figures). Her love of music and the visual arts is clear in her images and striking use of color. She examines her relationships and her emotions honestly and clearly.
In his introduction to Picture Bride, Richard Hugo notes the last line of this book: “Someone very quiet once lived here.” Hugo links this to the poet: “In Cathy Song’s quietude lies her strength. . . . In her receptivity, passive as it seems, lies passion that is expressed in deceptive quiet and an even tone.” There is also strength in the “quietude” and plain language, the images of household objects and lush nature. It is the strength of a careful observer, unafraid to examine who she is, where she comes from, and how the present moment of her life and her poetry connect to her past and her roots.
After Song experienced the loss of her cherished mother, her poetry turned darker. As she focused her poetic powers on analysis of the effects of that loss, the themes of suffering and redemption figured prominently in her work. Song has also experimented with aspectual poetry, looking at loss and suffering from a variety of aspects, and created poetic personae and figures without a direct autobiographic link. After experimenting with dense, mystical long poems in her collection The Land of Bliss, Song’s Cloud Moving Hands featured the poet’s return to succinct, shorter poems with accessible meaning.
Song’s first book, Picture Bride, explores the relationships in her family, beginning with the title poem, which sees in the poet’s imagination the arrival of her grandmother, a Korean picture bride, thirteen years younger than the “stranger/ who was her husband.” Song makes her emotional connection to her grandmother clear in the first lines of the poem:
She was a year youngerthan I,twenty-three when she left Korea.
Allusions to plantation control of her new environment and of the man who “waited/ turning her photograph/ to the light when the lanterns/ in the camp outside/ Waialua Sugar Mill were lit” cast doubt on the fate of the bride, whose dress, Song imagines, fills with dry wind from the fields where men like her grandfather were burning sugarcane.
“Easter: Wahiawa, 1959” revisits the grandparents and their Americanized family in the year that Hawaii gains statehood. The ambivalence that Song feels about the lives of her grandparents is clear in her paralleling of the grandfather’s ”long walks” in Korea with those through the sugarcane fields of Hawaii. His eighteen years cutting sugarcane have left their mark:
His right armgrew disproportionately largeto the rest of his body.He could hold threegrandchildren in that arm.I want to thinkthat each stalk that fellbrought him closerto a clearing.
In addition to the numerous poems that relate to her family and their immigrant experience, Song devotes significant time to two visual artists to whom she feels a special connection: the nineteenth century Japanese printmaker Utamaro and the modern American painter O’Keeffe. The five sections of this book are named for flowers that are also paintings by O’Keeffe, and two poems address the connection Song feels to O’Keeffe: “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe,” a poem in five sections, related from O’Keeffe’s point of view, and “From the White Place,” focused on O’Keeffe’s reaction to her lover, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose “lens felt like a warm skull,” and to the American Southwest.
The “Orchids” section contains three poems referring to Utamaro prints. In “Beauty and Sadness,” Song describes some of the “hundreds of women/ in studies unfolding/ like flowers from a fan,” women of “pleasure,” including actresses, geishas, and courtesans:
They resembled beautiful iridescent insects,creatures from a floating world.Utamaro absorbed these women of Edoin their moments of melancholyas well as of beauty.
Song relates to Utamaro and his “inconsolable eye”; his view of the “melancholy and beauty” in the lives of these women is reminiscent of her own sadness as she examines the lives of her grandmother and other women.
Frameless Windows, Squares of Light
Song’s second book, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, expands on her examination of her own experience and family. Critics have noted that it is more generalized and abstract than Picture Bride. In writing about this book, Song notes that these poems are about the “timeline...
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