Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535
“Ghost” appears in The Land of Bliss as a critical reflection on the issue of racial difference in the multiethnic context of Hawaiian society, where, in 2000, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and native Hawaiians made up about 51 percent of the population and white people were a 24 percent minority. To understand this poem, it is useful to consider the fact that, historically, “ghost” (gwai) was a term often used among the Chinese to refer to people of other races (typically white Caucasians) perceived to be oppressive or repulsive. Although an epithet suggesting repugnance and contempt, “ghost” also signifies a sense of helpless subjugation, as racism against Asians had been rampant historically. Typical of the younger generation, the poet does not endorse the sentiments underlying the epithet.
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In the first part of the poem, the speaker, a schoolteacher of Asian descent, refers to herself as a “yellow ghost” who flutters “like a moth/ invisible to these/ children of soldiers.” Despite this invisibility and potential lack of authority and recognition, the speaker acknowledges that she occupies a position of power. However, rather than perpetuating the pattern of domination, the speaker attempts to restructure the interracial self-other relationship in nonconfrontational terms, offering to share with her pupils “a jeweled seeded fruit,/ a poem I pare and peel/ that has no flesh,” a poem that “tastes like nothing/ they want to eat.” Song, who has been involved in the Poets in Schools program, thus raises questions about the meaning of the prevalent epithet. The color of power can be white, and it can also be yellow, but, more important, it needs to be vested not in the form of racial hierarchies but rather, as the poet seems to suggest, in culture and education.
In the second part of the poem, the speaker challenges her mother’s offhanded use of the term bok gwai (white ghost). The daughter does see the mother’s point about white privilege, but she questions the mother’s categorical myopia: “Bok gwai, white ghost,/ she chose to call them./ By choosing, she chose/ not to see/ them/ as she so surely saw/ she was not seen.” Fortunately, this is a vicious circle that the daughter is able to short-circuit when she starts dating a white man. The mother recoils at his “odor/ of a meat eater,” but eventually she is pleased enough with him to invite him back—thus paving way for the daughter’s interracial romance and, perhaps metaphorically speaking, the construction of a sustainable relationship for people from different cultures and ethnicities.
“Ghost” is hence a poem that bridges racial gaps on personal terms. In the context of the main action of the collection—the deteriorating health of the mother, and how that dying process intimately leaves a deep impact on the feelings, memories, and anxieties of the daughter—“Ghost” also bridges existential gaps between the two women. The mother might have accepted the daughter’s choice of a “round eye,” but it appears as if it is the daughter who grants the terms of reconciliation: The mother will be remembered and honored, but her flaws stay on the record even as she is immortalized in the land of bliss created by the daughter’s poetry.