Cathy Song 1955–
Song is an award-winning poet whose work draws on not only her rich Korean and Chinese ancestry but her experiences as a woman in America. Song herself has maintained that the world she creates in her poetry transcends her ethnic and regional background and resists classification as "Asian American" or "Hawaiian" writing. Her verses, which have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, are collected in the three volumes, Picture Bride; Frameless Windows, Squares of Light; and School Figures.
Song was born August 20, 1955, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her father, Andrew, was a second-generation Korean American; her mother, Ella, came to Hawaii from China as a "picture bride," her marriage to Song's father having been arranged through an exchange of photographs. During high school and college, Song became interested in writing, and during this time she was encouraged in her efforts by the noted poet and biographer John Unterecker. Song graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in English literature in 1977. She went on to earn a master's degree in creative writing from Boston University in 1981. Her first volume of poetry, Picture Bride, published in 1983, draws heavily on her family's experiences and earned Song the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award as well as a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. While living in Boston, Song married Douglas McHarg Davenport, a medical student. As he was completing his residency in Denver, Song completed her second book of poetry, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, which was published in 1988. In 1993 Song won the Hawaii Award for Literature and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. The following year she published her third collection of poetry, School Figures. Song now lives and teaches in Honolulu.
Uniting Song's body of work is her abiding focus on family. The moral ties that bind women to children and parents, to their community, to tradition, and to the land are continuously interwoven throughout her poems. In the title
poem of Picture Bride, for example, Song recalls the story of her grandmother, who at age twenty-three had come from Korea to the United States in order to marry a many who knew her only from a photograph. Frameless Windows, Squares of Light continues the theme of family history and relationships. "The Tower of Pisa" concerns the poet's father, an airline pilot whose life she describes as "one of continual repair." "Humble Jar" is written in praise of her mother, a seamstress. Song again treats the theme of womanhood in "A Mehinaku Girl in Seclusion," in which a girl, her coming of age signaled by her first menstruation, is removed from her tribe for three years and "married to the earth." In School Figures Song again casts the stories of her family in verse. Both "A Conservative View" and "Journey" explore the challenges faced by her parents, while "Sunworshippers" recalls her mother's advice against self-gratification. The thoughts, feelings, and impressions couched in each of Song's poems—whether quietly coming to terms with the death of a father or sitting amid the clatter of dishes and the chatter of family members during dinner—are transformed into the poet into universal images, transcending labels of race, gender, or culture.
Song's focus on familial images, evoking both the particular and the universal, has received much attention from critics. Gayle K. Fujita-Sato has argued that Picture Bride "describes both a personal history and a paradigm for analysing multicultural writing. In its portrayal of specific places and histories that is at the same time a portrayal of cultural synthesis and pluralism, Picture Bride defines a kind of 'third-world' writing." Richard Hugo has emphasized Song's quiet restraint, observing: "Song's poems are flowers—colorful, sensual and quiet—offered almost shyly as bouquets to those moments in life that seemed minor but in retrostpect count the most." Similarly, the reviewer for the Washington Post Book World stated that there is "a good deal of quiet music in [Song's] portraits of individuals who endure unlived lives." The restraint of many of Song's poems has led to some negative appraisals. Robert B. Shaw has detected a "meandering repetitiousness" in some of her works, and Jessica Greenbaum, writing of the poems in Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, charged that some pieces "lack the freshness of articulation we expect from good poetry." Other critics, including Fujita-Sato and Patricia Wallace, have explored the connections between Song's poetry and her Asian American heritage. The image of Song's grandmother looms large in these studies, for, as Lee Kyhan has stressed, Song "readily recognizes in the story of her grandmother a fortitude and a strength of character that she somehow hopes to make relevant to her own predicament as a modern Asian-American woman."