Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164
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,/ railings/ fan out like fish bones (“Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe”). Also, “When she came out west,/ her frail fields/ collapsed into tumbleweed (“From the White Place”).
Song also favors the work of Japanese printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro, finding in his work the elements of femininity, beauty, and sadness. She often portrays these elements in her own writing and dedicates to him her poem “Beauty and Sadness,” which describes the women whose likenesses he captures: “Crouching like cats,/ they purred amid the layers of kimono/ swirling around them/ as though they were bathing/ in a mountain pool with irises/ growing in the silken sunlit water.”
“Beauty and Sadness” also illustrates Song’s frequent use of the scenes and elements of nature. Additionally, in “Leaving,” she utilizes organic imagery and provides another example of metonymy: “We feasted/ on those pictures of the world,/ while the mud oozed/ past the windows/ knocking over the drab green leaves/ of palm fronds/ as we ate our spinach.” The poem describes children’s activities when confined indoors due to inclement weather. The reader is not intended to believe that the children always ate spinach on rainy days, but spinach stands in for the idea of food and mealtime. Synchronization of the images of “drab green leaves,” “palm fronds,” and “spinach” evoke a “green-ness” that is juxtaposed against the rain and mud.
Song expands the reader’s experience with her use of metonymy to convey the entire subject matter of her title poem, “Picture Bride.” She depicts the tale of her grandmother, who had traveled from Korea to the United States to marry a man who had seen her only in a photograph. In the poem, the man accepts the photograph as a substitute for the real woman. Everything that defines her—physical appearance, personality, mannerisms, personal history—is placed on hold until they meet. In the meantime, the photograph stands in for the woman.
[A] man waited,turning her photographto the light when the lanternsin the camp outsideWaialua Sugar Mill were litand the inside of his roomgrew luminousfrom the wings of mothsmigrating out of the cane stalks?
In “The White Porch,” Song uses a closely associated device known as a synecdoche (the use of a part for the whole or the whole for a part), in which the narrator secretly invites a lover into her bedroom using sheets tied into a rope to give him discreet access through an upper-floor window: “cloth, hair and hands/ smuggling you in.” Synecdochically, the cloth represents the braided sheets, and the hair and the hands represent the narrator.
The narrator in “The White Porch” reflects upon the earlier days of her youth. Youth, a common theme found among the poems in Picture Bride, is sometimes juxtaposed against images of aging. “The Violin Teacher” speaks of a young music student tutored by an aged teacher.
Upon arriving, he would nod to herfrom the corner where he stoodpreparing a medicinal drink,the color and texture of ox blood.The room reeked of eucalyptus and menthol,like a forest she would often think.He sometimes rubbed his hands in ointment.
The personas in many of the poems recall memories of childhood and speak of grandparents, relatives, former homes, and ties to the old world of China: “You find you need China:/ your one fragile identification” (“Lost Sister”). Other personas speak of longing and escapism, including the narrator in “The Youngest Daughter,” who longs for her personal independence, and the narrator in “Lost Sister,” who has escaped to a new home across an ocean. Similarly, a young man has his picture taken upon his “passage out/ of the deteriorating village” (“Untouched Photograph of Passenger”).
Central to all the poems in the book is Song herself. She infuses herself into each piece, making her presence known in subtle but sure fashion. Paradoxically, she often appears distanced through the instrument of time. She writes with honesty without the need for uncharacteristic boldness or starkness, and she writes about important pieces of her own being, illustrating memories, experiences, ancestry, femininity, and so forth.
As Song sketches a narrator with hands and hair, so does she portray herself with the parts that stand for her whole being. A reading of Picture Bride brings about familiarity with the poet’s world. Through stirring imagery and figurative renderings, the reader becomes versed in Song.