The Poem

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“Picture Bride” is the title poem of Korean American writer Cathy Song’s first book, one that earned the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1982 for its Hawaii-born author. It is a meditative poem in thirty-four lines of free verse.

To present-day Euramerican readers, the title may conjure up...

(The entire section contains 4738 words.)

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“Picture Bride” is the title poem of Korean American writer Cathy Song’s first book, one that earned the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1982 for its Hawaii-born author. It is a meditative poem in thirty-four lines of free verse.

To present-day Euramerican readers, the title may conjure up the vision of a stereotypically picture-perfect bride decked out with veil, lace, and train. If so, this vision would contrast ironically with the historical Asian American reality of the term. The title refers to a matchmaking practice common among many Asians who immigrated to the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As part of this practice, intermediaries and family members arranged a marriage between an Asian immigrant man in the United States and an Asian woman in Asia. Usually, the only contact between the bride and the bridegroom during the courtship, if it can be called such, was an exchange of letters and photographs—hence the term “picture bride.” Often, the wedding was solemnized by proxy in Asia, after which the bride proceeded to the New World to meet her groom in the flesh and to consummate the marriage.

The picture bride of Song’s poem is the grandmother of the poem’s speaker. The grandmother is the object of meditation for her granddaughter, a persona who closely resembles the author in age, gender, and ethnic background (Song’s father and mother are of Korean and Chinese ancestry, respectively). The speaker of the poem is thus a third-generation Asian American woman, a twenty-four-year-old who imaginatively projects herself into the thoughts and feelings that the now-matriarch of her family must have had when she first crossed the Pacific Ocean to establish a family with a “stranger” (line 26) she had never met, in an unfamiliar new land.

The speaker marvels at the notion that her grandmother was only twenty-three years old, a year younger than the speaker herself, when she left her family in southern Korea to assume her destiny in the United States. She wonders how her grandmother must have felt as she left the familial protection of her ancestral hearth and her native city, the port of Pusan, to set sail for the distant Hawaiian Islands, a place she had learned about only a short time before. She also wonders how her grandmother regarded the husband whom she had never met. All her grandmother knew was that he was a Korean immigrant laborer thirteen years her senior who worked for the Waialau Sugar Mill. The speaker is curious about how her grandmother felt and acted when this stranger took her from the dock to their new home, where she had to undress for the sudden intimacy of their nuptial bed.

Throughout, the poem maintains a tone of admiration for the grandmother’s upbringing and strength of character, which armed her with the acceptance and fortitude to undergo the shock of marrying a stranger chosen for her by other people. In different ways, her grandmother’s act is as extraordinary to the speaker as it was strange to the grandmother. The grandmother’s performance is seen as a paradoxically self-denying yet self-defining act; it is this act that bears fruit by giving life to her more freely choosing granddaughter, who now pays tribute to her grandparent. The grandmother’s act is also one that originates within a cultural and historical context vastly different from that of the speaker. Mingled with admiration, the poem’s tone also suggests that the speaker herself would shrink from an act as demanding and self-denying as her grandmother’s. However much the speaker may admire her grandmother, to whom she is connected by family, ethnicity, and gender, the two women are estranged by the gaps of generations, socialization, and implicit notions of individual freedom of choice—the grandmother’s generation and culture socialized her to disregard her individual prerogatives, whereas the granddaughter’s viewpoint has been shaped by her upbringing as an American woman of the late twentieth century.

Forms and Devices

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To consider this poem as a meditation, it might be useful to note that meditation is a serious, imaginative, and time-honored practice advocated by several religions. Usually, the purpose of a religious meditation (such as that encouraged by Saint Ignatius of Loyola) is to bring the meditator into closer understanding and communion with a sacred text, a divine mystery, or a moment in a saint’s life. For example, one purpose of a Christian meditator could be to think and imagine oneself as being present during a crucial moment of Christ’s life, such as the Crucifixion—in such a sense is John Donne’s seventeenth century metaphysical poem “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward” a meditation.

The object of meditation in Song’s poem, however, is a secular rather than a religious one, although the grandmother is, nevertheless, highly esteemed and even revered. It is common in several Asian cultures for ancestors to be regarded in a worshipful manner. One could then read the poem as a meditation in which the speaker thinks and imagines herself into the situation of her revered grandmother at a crucial moment in the latter’s life, thereby achieving an understanding and communion with her.

That the speaker chooses to honor a female ancestor in her meditation rather than a male one seems natural, given the speaker’s sex. Within an Asian context, however, it could be considered a rather unusual choice, for within the highly patriarchal Asian hierarchy the place of honor and reverence would normally be accorded to the male ancestor: the grandfather. Song’s meditator, however, salutes the matriarchal figure of her family and devalues the grandfather into a “stranger.” This choice by Song may thus be read as a feminist one.

The poem makes extensive use of contrasts in situations and imagery. Some of the more noticeable situational contrasts are those between the speaker and the matriarch: the younger, freer generation and the older, more-constrained generation, the turn-of-the-century Asian and the modern American, the bride and her husband, the long-familiar and the suddenly strange. These contrasting situations serve to highlight the matriarch’s strength of character and the speaker’s sense of wonder.

The poem’s imagery creates immediacy and lends it a dramatic quality; it also furthers the impact of the poem’s situational contrasts. For example, the bittersweet quality of the grandmother’s experience is reflected in the sensory contrast between the implied sweetness of the sugar “cane stalks” (line 22) and the bitterness of the “burningcane” after the harvest (line 34—a line that was added in the 1983 version of the poem). There is the dramatic imagist contrast between the bride’s disciplined self-control as she “politely untie[s]/ the silk bow of her jacket” to undress (lines 29 and 30) and a thirsting passion implied by “her tent-shaped dress/ filling with the dry wind” (lines 31 and 32). Most striking perhaps is the contrast between the dark of the night and the light of the lantern (lines 16 to 21), which suggests a parallel between the grandmother’s risky journey from Asia to the United States and the moths’ risking death in “migrating” from their natural habitat of the dark “cane stalks” toward the artificial light of the lantern.

Picture Bride

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In the last poem in this book, Cathy Song writes: “The world for me is the piece of cloth/ I have at the moment beneath my hands./ I am not surprised/ by how little the world changes.” The speaker is a seamstress, an unmarried maker of wedding dresses, but as she stitches, her quiet vision is the vision of the poet herself. The seamstress’ hands “take . . . miraculous flight”; they are “moist and white like lilies”; they are the “white gloved hands of the magician.” In their pale purity, their only apparently commonplace craft, and their underlying magical power, they resemble Song’s poems. For the poems, too, present themselves as delicate flowers. They, too, have the toughness and power of growing things and the gift of moving from the everyday to the surety and wonder of art.

These images—whiteness, hands, flowers—appear throughout the collection, and their reappearances, echoing from poem to poem, constitute one of the threads that weaves the book into a whole, a fabric richer than the sum of its constituent parts. There is, for example, the whiteness of a young Japanese woman applying powder to her neck:

The light is the insidesheen of an oyster shell,sponged with talc and vapor,moisture from a bath . . .the nape of her neckand the curve of a shoulderlike the slope of a hillset deep in snow in a countryof huge white solemn birds.

There are the gloved hands, in “January,” of the father of the poet’s unborn child, hands that assisted at the birthing of another baby. This father goes “to stand in the white field” and the remembered weight of that other child leads him—or the poet, whose imagination gives her the feel of that weight—to realize “How surprisingly/ heavy and determined/ new life is, pressing itself/ like snow upon the existing structures.” There are the hands of “A Pale Arrangement of Hands,” in which the poet moves from her own taut fists to the memory of her mother’s hands, nervous and confident, to a new understanding of what her mother’s life was like, rearing “three mild lunatics . . . in a chicken-coop house.” It is images such as these, drawn from the ordinary, that make connections and bridges, that give meaning to the poet’s life and, in turn, to the reader’s.

Flowers, in fact, name the five sections of the book: “Black Iris,” “Sunflower,” “Orchids,” “Red Poppy,” and “The White Trumpet Flower.” These same flowers provide the section titles of a poem inspired by the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, one of two artists to whose flowery visions of women Song pays tribute in the book’s central section; the other is the eighteenth century woodblock artist, Kitagawa Utamaro. The ordering of the poems here is skilled; the reader is led from the melancholic and fragile beauty of Utamaro’s depictions to the poem “Ikebana,” in which Song describes the artful preparations and restrictions of the female body for the sake of a refined beauty that, like a Japanese flower arrangement, appears “like a spontaneous accident.” The clincher is the last poem in the section, the one based on the work of O’Keeffe. It celebrates a woman artist, not a male artist’s woman. It insists, finally, on the strength of women, the toughness and autonomy that sustain constricted, delicate blooms. O’Keeffe figures again as an embodiment of womanly courage in “From the White Place,” which is dedicated to her; the poem ends:

Out on the pink mesa,the soft sandstone glowedlike the belly of a salmon.I began breathing for the first time today,knowing the first breath would hurt.

Song seems to be powerfully affected by the desert, perhaps as powerfully as O’Keeffe was. The child who is central to many of the poems is first announced at the opening of “Birthmarks”: “Our child was conceived/ in the desert.” Rain, too, pervades the poems. In one poem, it is the rain of Mexico City, “the summer we went there/ when I was fourteen.” This rain is a giver of life—and vision:

Leaning against the window,I sat looking through the ironrailing of the balconyto the city and the rain.They merged into one plane of visionwith my breath clouding the glass.

More often, however, it is the rain of Song’s native Hawaii. One of the book’s first poems explores the poet’s early memories of her family and their place in the world, framing them with one of her somehow remarkable commonplaces: “The rain stopped for one afternoon.” Another childhood poem, “Leaving,” lets the reader know how much the moods of the poet’s early life were colored by “the steady rain/ that fell like a gray curtain/ through which my mother peered:/ patches of depression.” The children lived near the pineapple fields, the eucalyptus and orchids and passion fruits of rural Hawaii, building safe little houses within a home invaded by the persistent things of nature. Mud and mildew, centipedes, mold, and one day a bat: The children grew as surely as the burgeoning green around them, but they “were squeamish and pale,” and though the father managed to drive the clinging bat away from the window screen, the result seems to be not victory but a standoff.

In the next poem in the sequence, “For My Brother,” rain and water become that from which the adult poet differentiates herself. The reader is told that the brother, who came tadpolelike “from the broken water” when she was two, was born “in the year of the fish/ during the rainy month/ when the pond brims over,” though (as Song surely knows) there is actually no year of the fish in the traditional East Asian calendrical cycle. He wanted “seawater instead of milk,” and he swam with the crayfish in the stream by their house, while she, in adulthood, claims for herself another element. “We each have become our own animals,” she concludes, and states that she is the sheep who plants herself on a sunny hillside. Ultimately, this differentiation is not merely that made by anyone growing up in an individualistic culture; it is the differentiation made by a poet who commits herself (as the seamstress did) to her craft. Her brother used to “navigate without words,” while she moves “differently,/ using the alphabet/ to spring from me an ocean,” yet this distinctive ability of hers is, finally, what connects the two.

Such recurring images are not the only linkages in this book’s world. Body is linked to body through desire (“In your curved arms/ my belly was a smooth bowl/ you shaped, fleshed out and brightly/ glazed.”), through the love of a woman bathing her aged mother, through the mysteries of pregnancy. As “For My Brother” suggests, one of the most important kinds of connection is the linkage of art. “Blue Lantern” describes the grandfather of a friend, who plays his bamboo flute for his dead wife in a “ritual of remembrance,/ keeping her memory alive/ with his old breath.” Central to a poem for the poet’s older sister is the hearing of “my first story” from her. That same sister, the poet imagines while looking at a thirty-year-old snapshot, gave something valuable to their father: She was his first child, and she could sing to him, paralleling the generational link with the link that music makes.

Some readers may think that occasional lines suffer from the contemporary weakness of expecting a single word or a simple prepositional phrase to do a full line’s work, but these very lines contribute toward the spareness of Song’s language, and the sense of its necessity.

As richly Hawaiian as the lush visual world of many of the poems is the multiethnic fertility of their sources. The flora and many of the lilting place-names are native to the islands. Song’s surname, like the grandmother who is the “Picture Bride” of the book’s title poem, is Korean. Much of the poems’ furniture (a doll maker, the flower arranging, a flute, the woodblock prints) is Japanese. Images of China, Chinatown, and Chinese-Americans predominate in the “Red Poppy” section: jade, winter melon, bound feet, mah-jongg, firecrackers, wonton, a dragon dance, and more. They belong there not because they are picturesque, but because they are part and parcel of daily life. The poem “Chinatown” consciously plays with the West’s nervous fascination with chinoiserie, beginning, “Chinatowns: they all look alike.” A friend’s return to her roots is celebrated in “For A. J.: On Finding She’s on Her Boat to China”. Song, too, is not Asian but Asian-American, as the blue-dyed Easter eggs of her childhood reflect, yet these eggs are not the same as the gleaming quail eggs of her grandfather’s Korean boyhood. Only the Utamaro poems and “Ikebana” might be accused of dabbling in exoticism, and the source of that quality is rather the material of the poems than the poet’s technique.

American poetry is better off for such infusions of new imagery, yet Song does not restrict herself to the Asian-Pacific world; she writes as skillfully of northern New Mexico or O’Keeffe’s roach-ridden New York. The title of Picture Bride is appropriate in highlighting the figure of a woman come to a new world clothed in the garb of the old, but that is only the beginning. Though the book begins with the sensuous and powerful image of the immigrant woman’s “tent-shaped dress/ filling with the dry wind/ that blew from the surrounding fields/ where the men were burning the cane,” it moves on into the time after this transforming arrival. The poet’s concerns—love of family and the need to escape from it; the quiet strength of energy (especially female energy) contained; the inarguable and sometimes terrifying beauty of the world; the mind’s ways of ferreting meaning out of experience—are the concerns of her readers in America in the twentieth century. For many readers, East Asia may feel closer to home than Troy. Our good fortune is that we need not choose East or West; thanks to poets such as Song, we can be nourished by both.

Form and Content

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The content and form of this first book of poems reflect intimately the personal background and interests of its author. Therefore, many of these poems have their locations in Hawaii, where Cathy Song was born and reared, and the continental United States, where she attended university and married. Song is the daughter of a Korean American father and a Chinese American mother, and her poems are valuable repositories of an Asian American woman’s sensibilities experiencing the intricate varieties of familial and personal relationships—as daughter, wife, mother, lover, and friend. Art, too, is an informing interest of Song’s, especially that of the Japanese ukiyo-e master Utamaro and that of the American feminist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, whose life and works lend inspiration and shape to this book of poems.

Picture Bride is organized into five sections, each section deriving its title from a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. Thus, the book begins with an initial statement of themes and an imagistic setting of scenes in “Black Iris” (familial relationships and home), continues with the development of these themes and scenes in “Sunflower,” moves into a contemplation of the effort and achievement of art in the central “Orchids,” renders scenes suggesting a darker, perhaps Dionysian, side to art and life in “Red Poppy,” and proceeds to a final affirmation of the validity and variety of human creativity and productivity in “The White Trumpet Flower.” The central section of the book also contains the key poem “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe,” whose speaker is Song’s imaginative re-creation of Georgia O’Keeffe and which is itself divided into five subsections with subtitles that replicate exactly the titles of the five sections of the book itself.

The title poem of this book, “Picture Bride,” is a young Korean American woman’s meditation on the feelings, experience, and mentality of her immigrant grandmother, who came to Hawaii to be married to a sugar-cane-field worker. This poem strikes the chord that forms the basis of many of the book’s poems: woman’s (and especially the ethnic woman’s) experience of family. Because Song’s feminism is so imbued with ethnicity, some readers may prefer to call her work “womanist,” the term coined by African American author Alice Walker in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983). That Song should choose to meditate on her grandmother in “Picture Bride” would seem natural enough to the majority of contemporary American readers, but in terms of traditional Confucian and Asian hierarchy the ancestor Song should have memorialized and venerated was her male ancestor. Instead, the grandfather is devalorized into a mere “stranger.” Therefore, Song’s choice of subject in this poem is itself a break from traditional Asian patriarchy and a declaration of allegiance to a feminist hierarchy of family history, a privileging of women’s experience.

It has been reported on good authority that the prepublication title of Song’s book in manuscript form was “From the White Place,” and the poem with that title bears a dedicatory epigraph: “for Georgia O’Keeffe.” It is fair to surmise, then, that Georgia O’Keeffe’s embodiment of sexual independence and creative power is as strong an element in this book as is the ethnic woman’s experience embodied by Song’s grandmother. Indeed, Georgia O’Keeffe, an exemplar of modern feminist painting, strikes the keynote of creativity and art by and about women.

Women’s experience, ethnicity, and art are therefore the main spheres of interest in Picture Bride, while the works of feminist artist Georgia O’Keeffe provide it with an encompassing structure and indwelling spirit.

Context

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Cathy Song was one of the first Asian American women poets to win a major literary prize—the 1982 Yale Younger Poets prize, an award that numbers among its laureates such distinguished women as Adrienne Rich (1950) and Carolyn Forche (1975). Only a very few Asian American women poets have received awards and recognition that might be equivalent to Song’s; those who come to mind are Ai, the Japanese African American Indian winner of the Lamont Poetry prize for Killing Floor (1978), and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, the Chinese American from Malaysia who won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Crossing the Peninsula (1980). Song is certainly the only Korean American woman to achieve her literary stature in the United States, the only other Korean American woman who approaches Song in literary accomplishment being Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (Dictee, 1982), whose promising career was terminated by her brutal murder.

Many of the poems in Song’s Picture Bride explore feminist themes of woman’s experience and the world of womanist culture. Many of Song’s most effective poems explore the relationships between women as mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. For example, the interior monologue of “The Youngest Daughter” captures the painful and constricting symbiosis of a migraine-stricken daughter and an insulin-dependent mother: As the daughter distastefully bathes her mother, she notices her “breasts/ floating in the milky water/ like two walruses,/ flaccid and whiskered around the nipples” and thinks “with a sour taste” that “six children and an old man/ have sucked from these brown nipples.” Similarly, as the mother prepares their afternoon meal, the daughter (whose skin is as friable as “pale . . . rice paper”) compares her own unfulfilled “white body” to “a slice of pickled turnip” about to be eaten, symbolically cannibalized by their relationship. In “Tribe,” the speaker of the poem recalls her elder sister’s childhood assertiveness with males via an image associating the sister with the huntress-goddess Diana/Artemis: The elder sister “disappeared like a huntress/ into the bushes, the only girl/ in a gang of boys,” boys who would lose their marbles to this girl as later she “returned triumphant, . . . with all their marbles/ bulging in the pockets/ of [her] leopard-spotted pedal pushers.”

Female sensuality and reproductive ability endow Song’s women with sensual force and creative self-awareness. A woman awaiting her man’s return home is vibrantly alive to her own sensuality in “The White Porch”; the speaker’s sexuality pervades the women’s chores of shampooing her hair (“like a bridal veil”), of preparing dinner (“the sponge cake rising in the oven” whose crumbs her man will “lick clean”), of stretching to hang out laundry (“the small buttons of my cotton blouse/ are pulling away from my body”), and of shelling beans (“the mountain of beans/ in my lap” suggests a feast of seed and sexuality). Each of these mundane acts leads the speaker through a “slow arousal” of her sensuality which climaxes in the urgent, empowering, apostrophized memory of how she used to smuggle this man into her parents’ home, into her bedroom, to her person: “I would let the rope down/ at night, strips of sheets,/ knotted and tied, . . . / my hair freshly washed/ . . . like a bridal veil. . . . Cloth, hair and hands,/ smuggling you in.” There are also moving poems about conception and pregnancy, such as “Seed,” a yearning lyric spoken by a mother-to-be, and “Stray Animals,” which subtly uses a road-killed stray cat as an objective correlative for a pregnant woman’s fear of miscarriage, while the subject of contraception and/or abortion is suggested in “A Dream of Small children” by powerfully visceral images such as “The sky is bandaged with white gauze./ A jet slits open the belly of clouds. . . . Eskimos who skin whales/ . . . Eat the ripe ovaries like fruit,/ while I mourn/ and dream of small children.”

In addition to exploring and celebrating female sexuality, Song also presents the possibilities of female empowerment through a vision of the woman as artist, (for example, the O’Keeffe poems) and the woman as art object (the Utamaro poems). In several of Song’s poems, woman’s work becomes her art, as it does in the quiet creativity of “The Seamstress” or the imaginative infectiousness of the mother in “A Pale Arrangement of Hands,” who infuses her children with poetic awareness when she makes them see rain as “Liquid sunshine.” Finally, in Song’s poetry, the exploration of the female subculture is enriched by her awareness of an ethnic subculture, an awareness that speaks feelingly of the generational differences between Asian American immigrant mothers and their daughters and granddaughters; thus, in poems such as “Lost Sister” and “Picture Bride,” Song deals explicitly with matrilineal inheritance within the Asian American subculture.

In sum, then, Song is a pioneering Asian American woman poet of the very first order. Sensitive and complex in her perception of the world, powerful and accomplished in wielding the tools of her poetic craft, Cathy Song is a writer whose work rewards those who read and study it.

Bibliography

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Fujita-Sato, Gayle K. “‘Third World’ as Place and Paradigm in Cathy Song’s Picture Bride.” MELUS 15, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 49-72. This intricate and meticulous essay proposes an innovative framework for reading both Song’s work and ethnic writing in general. Fujita-Sato sees places and people as points from which to view ethnic experience and cultural synthesis. She pays special attention to “Picture Bride,” “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe,” “Blue Lantern,” “Hotel Geneve,” “The White Porch,” “From the White Place,” “Easter Wahiawa, 1959,” and “Leaving.”

Lim, Shirley. “Reconstructing Asian-American Poetry: A Case for Ethnopoetics.” MELUS 14, no. 2 (Summer, 1987): 51-63. Lim makes a case for an ethno-centered reading of Asian American poetry, outlining three levels at which ethnopoetics functions—stylistic traits of diction or figurative language, linguistic inclusions of Asian languages, and use of ethnic background and allusions. Lim refers to Song’s use of imagery that is specifically Asian American in Picture Bride.

Lim, Shirley. Review of Picture Bride. MELUS 10, no. 3 (Fall, 1983): 95-99. Lim notes that kinship is the primary theme of the collection. Lim sees Song’s ability to merge organic imagery with emotion and form as her major strength. The only weakness that Lim describes is an overuse of linguistic conventions to present Asian American culture, rendering a few of Song’s metaphors strained and unbelievable.

Sumida, Stephen H. “Pictures of Art and Life.” Contact II 7, nos. 38-40 (1986): 52-55. A highly informed and penetrating analysis of Song’s imagery, narrative element, and dramatic monologue. Sumida is a leading authority on Hawaiian American literature, and he brings his expertise and sensibility to bear in his analysis of the book, especially of the poems “Picture Bride,” “The Youngest Daughter,” “The Seamstress,” and “Blue and White Lines After O’Keeffe” (to which Sumida devotes half of his article).

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. Wallace distinguishes the literary from the literal in the works of minority women poets, “literary” being the poet’s ability to manipulate language to express, and “literal” being the poet’s attempt to reflect knowledge from experience. She examines how these two impulses function independently even as they appear together in a work. Although Wallace’s discussion of Song centers on Song’s second book, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, Wallace does specifically refer to the poem “Picture Bride.”

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