Most of the poems in Song’s book deal with the various spheres of women’s familial experience. These range from mother-daughter relationships (in, for example, “The Youngest Daughter,” and “A Pale Arrangement of Hands”), to father-daughter relationships (Father and Daughter”), to sibling relationships (“For My Brother,” “Tribe,” “Lost Sister”), to the numerous poems dealing with spousal relationships (“Birthmarks,” “The White Porch,” “Seed,” “Stray Animals,” “A Dream of Small Children,” and “January”). Apart from these poems of women’s familial experience, some pieces concentrate mainly on an ethnic topic; for example, “Untouched Photograph of Passenger” focuses on a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, and “Chinatown” attempts to capture the spirit of a place and a people through a collage of images of several Chinatowns. Several other poems focus on art or artists: music and musicians in “Blue Lantern” and “The Violin Teacher”; Utamaro, the Japanese artist who painted women, in “Beauty and Sadness” and “Girl Powdering Her Neck”; a woman writer (probably Song herself) in “Hotel Genève”; and, most important, the American feminist artist Georgia O’Keeffe in “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe” and “From the White Place.”
As one might expect, however, many of Song’s poems elude a rigid thematic categorization that would separate, for example, poems of women’s experience from those about ethnicity or from those about art. In fact, these themes are sometimes organically and inextricably intertwined. For example, one will happen on poems about ethnic women’s experience and about women artists/artisans, such as “The Seamstress,” whose speaker is a Japanese American woman who makes dolls and creates wedding gowns but who seems condemned to remain in the background, a silent spinster (and spinner), or “For A. J.: On Finding That She’s on Her Boat to China,” which addresses an Asian ballerina manquee returning to Asia to become a materfamilias.
In exploring these themes, Song uses with dazzling skill many of the tools and devices of the poet’s craft. Employing a colloquial diction in the open form of subtly cadenced free verse, Song is equally adept at narrative, monologue (be it lyrical-meditative, conversational, or dramatic), and evocation (of a place, time, or person). Yet everywhere it is Song’s brilliant use of imagery that makes her poetry shine forth.
Indeed, many readers have noted and lauded the clarity and originality of Song’s imagery. As well as being lucid and unique, Song’s imagery is also richly meaningful and allusive. For example, in the poem that is at the umbilical center of the book, “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe,” the very title conjures up pictures of O’Keeffe’s paintings as well as the image of blue-inked lines of poetry written on a white page. The poem then begins as a dramatic monologue spoken through the persona of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who is describing her feelings in New York City: “I climb the stairs/ in this skull hotel./ Voices beat at the walls,/ railings/ fan out like fishbones.” The hard, ungiving, and treacherous qualities of New York are caught in Song’s choice of the images of skulls, walls, railings, and fishbones to express her experience. “Skull hotel” is a brilliantly macabre and unique image, infusing connotations of death and intellectual sterility into one’s dwelling place, effectively turning one’s lodgings into a charnel house. Moreover, this image appears in combination with the kinesthetic image of climbing the stairs, an allusion to Christ’s climbing the hill of Calvary or Golgotha toward his crucifixion (golgotha is the Aramaic word for “skull”). The synesthetic image of the phrase “voices beat at the walls,” combining the auditory and...
(The entire section contains 1008 words.)
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- Critical Essays