Rhapsody in Plain Yellow

by Marilyn Chin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Rhapsody in Yellow by Marilyn Chin is a collection of poetry that can be read as a punctuated autobiography. Chin was born in Hong Kong and immigrated with her family as a child. In some ways, the collection is an autobiography of her whole family. In the opening poem, "The Half Is Almost Gone," the speaker imagines her mother as an interlocutor. The "other half" of the poem is the Chinese half. The speaker discusses how her mother's Chinese identity is at risk by virtue of her American life (her third daughter is marrying a white man). Chin frequently makes a metaphors of the Chinese identity, imagining a "Tiny Pearl" (a sister of Cain and Abel).

In the course of discussing her Chinese heritage, the speaker also features certain concepts of Buddhism (such as the rebirth cycle, "Samsara" featured in the title of one poem, as well as the Buddhist chant "amaduofu" in the title poem).

Another core facet of Chin's identity that is evident in her poems is interracial love. Her lover, Charles (to which the title poem is dedicated), died in a plane crash. Insofar as Chin is an accomplished poet, she features many allusions to other writers (such as Camus, Kafka, and Helen Cixous). This cycle of poetry features the word "yellow" as a double meaning. On one level, it is (according to the William Carlos Williams quote) the color of love. Chin also adduces the color for its use in popular culture as meaning "Asian."

At times, Chin's speaker plays the stereotypical role of the forlorn lover bereft of her partner ("without you, I am utterly empty"). Alternating between her roles of bereft lover and immigrant, Asian-American daughter, the writer uses her poetry as an unapologetic form of therapy. The speaker is also deft at assuming the voice of others of her subjects (such as that of her late lover, Charles, in the title poem "Say: I am a teeny weeny little boy," as well as of her mother). In doing this, the speaker can understand her own identity in relation to her loved ones, whose struggles she seeks to understand within her poetry.

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