Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008
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 tactile senses, further extends the pervading sense of frustration and claustrophobia. “Railings,” too, is an image with double meaning: not only is it a physical image of a cold metallic structure, but it also denotes arguing and quarreling—an eloquent description of a thoroughly unfriendly neighborhood. A final synesthetic image in this stanza that likens the neighbors’ voices to “fishbones” vividly combines the audible quality of treachery in the neighbors’ talk with the visceral sensation of pain in the gullet. By deftly deploying such richly suggestive and allusive imagery, the opening stanza of this poem conveys the sense of malaise felt by a woman artist starting out in New York.
Song also uses imagery to make effective contrasts. For example, the initial New York section of “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe” contrasts imagistically with the third section of this poem, which moves to a Hawaiian setting (Makena Beach, Maui). Whereas in the New York section the Christian images are painful memento mori, in the Hawaii section the Christian images become positive: “I wear hats . . . like halos,” “I cross myself/ with ti leaves” (reminiscent of Christ’s triumphant Palm Sunday), and “the eyes of old fishermen” (echoing Christ’s calling of his first disciples). New York was a cold, mean place bereft of greenery; and in the following passage about New York, the double meaning of “palette” synthesizes a gustatory image with a visual one to suggest a deadening unavailability of green freshness in physical food as well as in food for the creative appetite: “I . . . dine alone./ I stare into the palette,/ imagine green in my diet,/ Peeling back the tins of sardines,/ these tubes of paint,/ lined like slender bullets:/ my ammunition.” Hawaii, however, is a place of plenitude; it is provident and nourishing, physically and creatively. Instead of the fishbone-like railings of her New York neighbors, the “bird language” of the Hawaiians beautifully “spirals up in the blue air.” In contrast to the lethal and destructive images of bullet-like tubes of paint in New York, the speaker says that, in Hawaii, “I have all the colors I need.” Instead of the unappetizing tinned sardines and merely imaginary greens of New York food, the speaker says of Hawaii’s lush plenty: “What tropical plants/ I cannot eat,/ I can use for dyes.” In this manner, then, Cathy Song uses imagery to its peak of effectiveness.