Rhapsody in Plain Yellow

by Marilyn Chin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Chinese-born American poet Marilyn Chin (recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and Pushcart Award for poetry) writes about her family, her Chinese heritage, her love, and her grief in her collection titled Rhapsody in Plain Yellow. The speaker obliquely discusses her family's history in "Chinese Quatrains":

He gleaned a beaded purse from Hong Kong

He procured an oval fan from Taiwan

She married him for a green card

He abandoned her for a blonde

Chin, who was born Mei Ling, was forced by her father to change her name to Marilyn when she prepared to enroll in school. Her father was obsessed with the famous actress Marilyn Monroe, and so this quote is likely an allusion to her father.

Chin remembers her mother fondly. In "Blues on Yellow," (a poe, whose title is a pun on the "blue" of sadness and the "yellow" used pejoratively to describe Asians), the speaker encourages her mother, "Do not be afraid to perish, my mother, Buddha's companion is nigh." Much of this poetry collection is devoted to Chin's mother, specifically the poet's grief at her mother's passing.

Chin had a close relationship with her mother and, as evidenced in this collection, perceived in her mother an ambivalence concerning American life. In "That Half is Almost Gone," the speaker watches as her mother slowly adjusts to life in America:

You are a Chinese/ my mother was adamant

You are a Chinese/ my mother less convinced

You are not Chinese?/ my mother now accepting.

The speaker of this poem is Chin herself (thirty-six years old at time of writing). She recalls that her mother struggled to impart a sense of Chinese identity in her daughters ("her third daughter marries a Protestant West Virginian").

While Chin sympathizes with her mother's struggle as an immigrant, she also exhibits some resentment in not fulfilling what she imagines her mother's wishes would have been. In "The Waters of Samsara" she calls herself "my mother's aging girl / Myopic, goat-footed / Got snagged on an unmarked trail." Especially now that her mother is dead ("what is the void but motherlessness"), she regrets her mother's wishes for her—even if she does not regret not having fulfilled them.

The poet also addresses herself to Charles, her former lover. In her titular poem, "Rhapsody in Plain Yellow," she begins:

I love you, I love you, I love you, no matter

your race, your sex, your color.

The majority of this poem is spent memorializing her late husband.

Finally, Chin is often self-referential as a poet, reflecting on her craft. In "How Deep is the River of God?" she provocatively writes, "Poetry is a vast orphanage, in which you and I are stars." This quote exhibits, addition to her self-awareness, her skill in subverting the reader's expectations (as one would expect "children" rather than "stars" in such a metaphor).

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