Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401
Marylin Chin's poem "Rhapsody in Plain Yellow" touches on many issues and topics. Although it starts out sounding like a love poem, and is even dedicated to a beloved who has passed away, the poem moves from a lost love toward issues of colonization, human consciousness, the meaning of life, what it means to be Chinese American, and what poetry's role is during times of social unrest. By using the refrain "Say:", Chin allows us to more easily follow along with these various movements between topics. This refrain also echos the way the speaker was taught to speak English in the classroom, which is described in these lines:
The language of the masters is the language of the aggressors.
We’ve studied their cadence carefully—
enrolled in a class to improve our accent.
Meanwhile, they hover over, waiting for us to stumble . . .
to drop an article, mispronounce an R.
This sets us up to understand a line later in the poem, "My turn to objectify you." The speaker then explains that her life and her presence are a reminder that the world is full of injustice and struggle.
The tone of this poem is both sarcastic and serious. At times it explores feelings of resentment toward the lost beloved and Western society, but there is also a sense of immense loss here. We can see the speaker's process of dealing with this loss and how chaotic that process can be. However, even the speaker's reuse of the exclamation "O" is very intentional. Because this starts off as a kind of love poem, the "O" in lines like "O rainbows, in his eyes, rainbows" works as a kind of nod to classical poetry from the English cannon. However, paired with sarcastic tone and issues of colonization and oppression, the "O" also works to mock the poetry of the English canon. In this way, "Rhapsody in Plain Yellow" can be read as a kind of dissent from, or direct protest of, the English canon and its representation of Western colonization. The speaker, who refers to herself as "the scourge of the old world" at the end of the poem, explains that her presence in this westernized society "reminds us—it ain't all randy dandy / in the new kingdom." This speaks to all that the speaker's culture, and cultures around the world, have lost due to colonization and the rampant spread of Western culture.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1911
Like her two other remarkable and prize-winning books of poetry, Marilyn Chin’s Rhapsody in Plain Yellow is a volume of finely crafted poems characterized by brilliant imagery, intricate personal and sociopolitical turns of thought, and a richly allusive style. With sensitivity, with eloquence, and frequently in anger, she expresses the woe of being a woman, the quandary of being bicultural, and the bereavement of a great love rapt away by death. The title of the book itself is an indicator of Chin’s complex and allusive sensibility. The image of yellow in the title alludes to the author’s Chinese ancestry but it also points to the effects of aging, to the privileges and perils attendant on that color (from precious metals to alluring blondes), and to William Carlos Williams’s use of yellow in his 1917 poem “Love Song” (partially quoted in Chin’s epigraph).
In fact, the three lines from Williams’s poem establish an important keynote for Chin’s book: “The stain of love/ Is upon the world/ Yellow, yellow, yellow.” In Williams’s poem, yellow represents love, and it is a crepuscular yellow that stains and smears and eats into all existence just before the whole twilit world goes dark. This uneasy keynote of yellow is riffed upon in Chin’s poem “Blues on Yellow” which is italicized and positioned as a preface to this volume. Through a series of haunting repetitions and echoes, Chin makes her reader realize that yellow emblematizes the Chinese experience in America when she mentions “gold” and “railroad” (since the colloquial Chinese name for the United States is Gold Mountain and Chinese labor was mainly responsible for the construction of railroads in the American West). It also strikes the note of love, a love between individuals of differing ancestry (canary and crow), and it is also a love that is lost to death. Indeed, death is a force very much to be reckoned with in the book, as in its prefatory poem, where the death of a mate and the death of a mother are mourned and where death concludes a painful lifetime of seemingly maladroit struggle to become an artist (“I’ll teach my yellow toes to write”) and to be an activist (“I’ll teach my yellow feet to fight”). In fact, death can eventually take the form of a nostalgia for Nirvana, where reincarnation ceases: “ . . . Buddha sings in my veins./ O take me to the land of the unreborn, there’s no life on earth without pain.”
As one might expect from this prefatory poem, many poems of this book deal with the condition of being Chinese in America, which is not depicted as a hospitable host country to her duskier immigrants. In “Millenium, Six Songs,” for example, Chin presents this series of images:
Black swollen fruit dangling on a limb Red forgotten flesh sprayed across the prairie Parched brown vines creeping over the wall Yellow winged pollen, invisible enemies
Each image represents an American minority group with a reminder of its maltreatment in America—the blacks who were lynched, the “red” Indians who suffered near genocide, the brown Mexicans who are stereotyped as illegal immigrants, and the diasporic yellow Asians who, though guiltless, were herded into concentration camps. In addition to such critiques of American society, several poems deal with the anxiety of assimilation, the sense of loss of their originary cultures that occurs as immigrants acculturate into American society. Thus, in a poem about her thirty-sixth birthday, Chin regrets her aging as well as her forgetting:
That half is almost gone,
the Chinese half,
The fair side of a peach,
Darkened by the knife of time. . . .
(Incidentally, it should be noted that each line of this poem is sliced into two halves by the printing and that the peach is a Chinese symbol of longevity, even of immortality.) The title of another poem wryly notes that “The Colonial Language Is English,” the language with which she perforce writes and by which her mind is presumably colonized. In “Identity Poem (#99),” reminiscent of her own Oregon childhood experience, Chin asks: “Are you the sky—or the allegory for loneliness?/ Are you the only Chinese restaurant in Roseburg, Oregon?/ A half-breed war orphan—adopted by proper Christians?”
If the immigrant’s experience of America is troubled by angst, the memory of the originary land across the Pacific is also often fraught with pain and peril even as it recalls a rich and fabulous past. “Cauldron,” for instance, a poem whose stanza form visually recapitulates the Chinese vessel, is interlarded with allusions to the glorious Chou dynasty city of Xian (c. 1000 b.c.e.), the elegant Han dynasty city of Loyang (c. 200 b.c.e.), even the storied Shaolin temple of the martial arts, but the main narrative is set in the bloody and violent years of Yuan Shih Kai’s presidency (1913-1916) when Chin’s grandmother had to rescue her daughter from being sold into bondage by a relative. Again, “Bold Beauty,” is a reimagining of Ts’ai Yen (c. 200 c.e.), one of China’s earliest and most celebrated women poets, but it is notable that Chin’s reconstruction of this figure is a more sanguinary and vengeful personage than Ts’ai Yen’s own self-portrait, which emphasizes her Confucian qualities of filiality and maternity. Chin’s book also offers more contemporaneous, but equally disturbing, recollections of China. “Hong Kong Fathersong,” for instance, describes a modern philandering, gambling Chinese father who pursues Caucasian women; this character, one gathers, is at least partially based on Chin’s own father, who admired blondes to the point of renaming his daughters Marilyn and Jane after the blond film stars Monroe and Mansfield, and who eventually deserted his Chinese wife for a blonde woman.
A second major theme of Chin’s book concerns the woe of being woman. As one might anticipate, several poems that elaborate this theme deal with the life and death of Chin’s own mother. “My father escorts my mother/ From girlhood to unhappiness,” Chin forthrightly says in the poem “Chinese Quatrains (The Woman in Tomb 44),” one of several movingly elegiac poems about her mother. Chin bitterly proclaims her mother’s death to be her “finest hour” in “Altar (#3).” Another aspect of women’s experience is the inequity between the sexes, an inequity that is not just specific to Chin’s family or to the Chinese. “The Cock’s Wife,” for instance, is a wry fable of universal application: The cock “is still beautiful” and alive “in the end of the millennium,” whereas the hen is served up on “the imperial table,” and when the younger generation of “yellow” chicks take her case to The Hague, the court of world opinion only joins in devouring her.
In another fablelike allegory, “Mortar and Pestle,” Chin tells of the punishment that women inflict upon themselves. They strive for a mortarlike and yanglike success in their professional careers as well as a pestlelike and yinlike success in their home lives; the tao of striving to be this doubly achieving woman is only to be purchased by the self- begotten “cruelty” of “Sister Mortar pounding on Sister Pestle.”
Chin’s verse also breaks into impatience at the anxiety of an aging woman when she starkly points out “The Tribune says NOBODY WILL MARRY YOU/ YOU’RE ALREADY FORTY” (in “Tonight While the Stars Are Shimmering”). Several other poems take up the theme of women alone and forlorn. “Folk Song Revisited,” for example, introduces an instructor named Mieko who, limericklike, has a condo in Oxford, Ohio, and “lives there alone without a lover,” teaching Japanese to business majors. The companion poem to this, “Ohio/Ohio” (a play on the Japanese greeting of “good morning”), takes on a more somber tone. As Mieko teaches her students how to write the ideogram for heart it is hinted that she has breast cancer, and the narrator comments: “Fifty, you’re still chasing love/ Time’s running out, the clock drips regret/ Let’s cruise the websites for a savior.” Similarly, in one section of the long poem “Summer Sonatina,” a note of despairing sterility is struck: “We search for the Great Elixir,/ manless, childless,/ Without a cloud in the sky”; the poem concludes with an ominous warning resonant of the cadence and tone of a Tang dynasty lyric: “O Prince, do not lose your soul in the ramparts./ West of Chin’s edge, there are no new friends.”
Finally, death is the third leitmotif of the book. It is adumbrated at the beginning of the volume by the many allusions to the death of Chin’s mother. Even in the prefatory poem, “Blues on Yellow,” there is the line, “Do not be afraid to perish, my mother, Buddha’s compassion is nigh.” In “Take a Left at the Waters of Samsara,” this sinister Hindu-Buddhist mire of earthly existence includes a spot where “near the grave of my good mother/ Tin cans blossom. . . . , ” and the poem ends with a question and answer of deprivation and gloom: “What is the void but motherlessness? The song bellies up/ The sun taketh/ The rain ceases to bless.”
It is altogether fitting, then, that the closing poem of the book, its title poem, should conflate the themes of love and death in a bicultural context. This poem at once celebrates the bicultural love of the Chinese author and her French lover, Charles, and simultaneously mourns his death in 2000, reportedly in a shocking air crash. An earlier poem, “Blues on Yellow (#2),” had also been written for Charles, and into it had already crept images of death: “Twilight casts a blue pall on the green grass/ The moon hangs herself on the sickly date palm . . . ” (emphasis added). “Rhapsody in Plain Yellow” grippingly reiterates the poet’s consuming love for her dead Charles with fiercely passionate imagery: “Say: I shall kiss the rondure of your soul’s/ living marl. Say: he is beautiful . . . ” (The repeated and insistent “say” is a constant reminder of the bicultural nature of their relationship, for its Chinese ideograph has been placed at the head of the poem.) The tragic plight of the poet and her lover is interwoven with allusions to many other tragic loves. There is allusion to the T’ang dynasty’s rebel general An Lu Shan (703-757), whose mistress was also the emperor’s favorite concubine—it was necessary to execute her horribly before the imperial troops would move against the rebels. There is allusion to the Greek hero Oedipus, who so tragically and unwittingly married his own mother. There is allusion to the poet John Keats (1795-1821), who could not marry his fiancé Fanny Brawne and who died young of tuberculosis. Chin’s poem successfully conveys a sense of great frustration as it rails against the maddening incomprehensibility of death and expresses an excruciating sorrow. The poem ends with a fitting image of profound desolation: “Say rebuke descry/ Hills and canyons, robbed by sun, leave us nothing.”
To be sure, Marilyn Chin’s Rhapsody in Plain Yellow is a darker and angrier book than its predecessors Dwarf Bamboo (1987) and The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty (1994). However, with this book Marilyn Chin again shows that she is a masterly conjurer with words and crafter of imagery as she brings to her pages deeply felt responses to life and death in America at the turn of the millennium.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (January 1-15, 2002): 796.
Publishers Weekly 248 (October 22, 2001): 71.
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