The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Picture Bride

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 603 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”