Rhapsody in Plain Yellow Summary
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,312 words.)