(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Cathy Song, born in Hawaii to Asian American parents, published Picture Bride, her first book of poetry, in 1983. The collection, which won for the author the 1982 Yale Younger Poets Prize, encompasses many of Song’s most noted works. Themes of womanhood, motherhood, childhood, and family relationships appear throughout Picture Bride, artfully woven in poems that invoke quietude and fluidity. Song’s voice flows through her poems, carrying the reader from one image to another. Skillfully designed themes and literary devices craft her work’s settings, backdrops, and scenes.

Song approaches her subjects with a certain delicacy, a certain lightness: “Rinsing through his eyes/ and dissolving all around him/ is sunlight on water” (“Untouched Photograph of Passenger”). She appeals to the senses: “I turn bolts of cloth into wedding dresses/ like chiffon cakes in the summer” (“The Seamstress”). She often enchants and delights the reader with color: “The same blue tint/ of the hydrangea in glass,/ here on the table,/ now as I write” (“Hotel Geneve”). Weaving color, delicacy, and lightness together, she produces memorable images: “The light at each window/ becoming dimmer like a pulse/ beneath the thickening/ walls of ice, blue and iridescent” (“January”). Interlacing images, the poet creates poignant scenes.

In “The Youngest Daughter,” a young girl acts as caretaker for her aging mother. The caretaking is reciprocal in that the mother lovingly massages her daughter’s face, spotlighting Song’s clever use of metonymy (the use of the name of one thing for that of another thing): “My skin, aspirin colored,/ tingles with migraine. Mother/ has been massaging the left side of my face.” Rather than flatly stating the she feels pain, the narrator offers a closely associated word: “migraine.” The descriptive word “migraine” instantly connects the reader to a particular type of pain. This produces a description charged with the power to evoke specific emotions in the reader.

By arranging the collection into five sections, each named for a flower, Song is sharing with her reader her appreciation of art. These flowers represent paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and constitute one aspect of the visual imagery, alluring use of color, and sensual appeal that pervade Song’s work.

Evidence of Song’s identification with O’Keeffe is heavily illustrated in two poems: “From the White Place,” which employs sensual imagery, and “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe,” which is delivered from the painter’s perspective. Lines from each of these poems indicate Song’s understanding of the artist’s fascination with the barrenness of the deserts of the American Southwest: “I climb the stairs/ in this skull hotel./ Voices beat at the walls,/...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Picture Bride,” the title poem with which Song’s volume begins, serves as the seminal text of the collection, in a way defining the thematic direction of the book. In this poem, the poetic persona, aged twenty-four, attempts to imagine what it was like for her maternal grandmother, at the age of twenty-three, to leave Korea for Hawaii to marry a laborer thirteen years her senior, a man she had never seen before. The entire poem, except for the first three lines, consists of a series of questions intended to re-create not only the scenes of the departure, the journey, and the arrival but also the psychology and emotions of the picture bride throughout the process. The concluding question, which speculates on how willing she might have been with regard to her conjugal obligation (“did she politely untie/ the silk bow of her jacket,/ her tent-shaped dress”), focuses an entire economic and sociohistorical phenomenon onto the question of sexuality, making the poem linger on a moment of truth in human terms. This ability to crystalize the general into the personal is characteristic of Song’s poetry.

The figure of the picture bride serves as a muse of sorts for the poet, in part because the questions raised in “Picture Bride” are either answered or contextualized in the volume’s other poems. For example, in “Untouched Photograph of Passenger,” Song contemplates the picture of a man dressed in a poorly tailored suit who is gazing into the...

(The entire section is 446 words.)