A Pale Arrangement of Hands Summary
by Cathy Song

Start Your Free Trial

Download A Pale Arrangement of Hands Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Pale Arrangement of Hands Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“A Pale Arrangement of Hands,” also from Picture Bride, begins with the poet sitting at the kitchen table listening to the all-night rain. Seeing her own hands on the table, she remembers her mother’s hands, which always seemed nervous “except when they were busy cooking”: “Her hands would assume a certain confidence/ then, as she rubbed and patted butter/ all over a turkey as though/ she were soaping and scrubbing up a baby.” The poet further recalls that her mother used to describe the rain in Hawaii as “liquid sunshine” to her three children. Further associations bring back memories of the mother applying lipstick; the poet remembers the mother using her discarded tissues for a surprising purpose during rainy afternoons when the children were idle: She shows them “how to make artificial carnations . . . with a couple of hairpins.” As the memory unfolds, many more mundane but fond episodes emerge.

By detours, the poet’s memories begin to reel back to the present, concluding with one more memory—of the children’s habitual refusal to take a nap in the afternoon, which for the mother was the longest part of the day: “Sleep meant pretending. Lying still/ but alert, I listened from the next room/ as my mother slipped out of her damp dress./ The cloth crumpling onto the bathroom floor/ made a light, sad sound.”

Although the poem appears to be unstructured and plain, and although the moments captured are mundane, Song’s ability to re-create the vivid and even noisy scenes of childhood is unmistakable. The poem also exemplifies Song’s favorite device of bringing the past and the present together. More important, however, “A Pale Arrangement of Hands” is a good example of what Song and Juliet S. Kono have characterized as women writers’ voices. The mother in the poem is not deified, but the poet, through negotiations between her subjectivity and her subject matter, has given an ordinary mother a voice—a tribute to women who have most of the time been silent. The poem “The Seamstress,” from the same book, can also be interpreted from a similar perspective, as can “Humble Jar” from Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, a poem occasioned by the memory of an assortment of buttons that the mother kept in a jar.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Chang, Juliana. “Reading Asian American Poetry.” MELUS 21, no. 1 (Spring, 1996): 81-98.

Chun, Gary. “Poet Sings of Journey of Life.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 11, 2002.

Cobb, Nora Okja. “Artistic and Cultural Mothering in the Poetics of Cathy Song.” In New Visions in Asian American Studies: Diversity, Community, Power, edited by Franklin Ng et al. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1994.

Fujita-Sato, Gayle K. “’Third World’ as Place and Paradigm in Cathy Song’s Picture Bride.” MELUS 15, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 49-72.

Hugo, Richard. Foreword to Picture Bride, by Cathy Song. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983.

Lim, Shirley. Review of Picture Bride, by Cathy Song. MELUS 10, no. 3 (Fall, 1983): 95-99.

Song, Cathy. “Cathy’s Song: Interview with Cathy Song.” Interview by David Choo. Honolulu Weekly 4 (June 15, 1994): 6-8.

Song, Cathy, and Juliet S. Kono. Introduction to Sister Stew: Fiction and Poetry by Women. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1991.

Sumida, Stephen. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaii. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Wallace, Patricia. “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove.” MELUS 18, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 3-19.

Zhou, Xiaojing. “Intercultural Strategies in Asian American Poetry.” In Re-placing America: Conversations and Contestations, edited by Ruth Hsu et al. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.