Rhapsody in Plain Yellow

by Marilyn Chin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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