School Figures

by Cathy Song

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2335

Inspired by a line in the title poem of the book, the publisher’s advertisement characterizes School Figures as a collection of “poems like an ice skater’s school figures—the pen moving silently and deliberately across a white expanse of paper, tracing memory and experience, bringing pressure to bear upon the blade of language to unlock ‘the invisible fire beneath the ice.’” The blurb is not inaccurate insofar as it highlights the understated intensity of memory and experience frequently found in Cathy Song’s poetry. To readers familiar with her two previous collections—Picture Bride (1983) and Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988)—School Figures would, apart from satisfying their expectations, also meet them with surprises. While many of the poems continue to explore with vigor previously charted terrains, such as family, ethnicity, and art, discernibly different themes (including death, husband-and-wife relationships) and visions (particularly those related to the female body) have also emerged in this book.

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School Figures appears to be a heterogeneous collection, but judging by the content of the title poem of each section, one suspects that the poet is preoccupied with (among other things) the interrelationships across generations and cultures (“Points of Reference”), the sense of community and kinship among women (“The Grammar of Silk”), filial piety and emotions (“The Hotel by the Lake”), and conjugal sentiments (“Things We Know by Heart”). In addition, the two epigraphs of the volume also provide clues to the general themes of these materials. The first, from a poem by Christina Rossetti, affirms and celebrates love and life in the same breath: “Because the birthday of my life/ Is come, my love is come to me”; the second, by Elizabeth Bishop, laments the onslaught of loss but seeks to neutralize it by means of humor and perseverance: “I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or/ next-to-last, of three loved houses went./ The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” The affirmation of life, the celebration of love, and the containment of loss—these are indeed some of the major themes of the collection. Aside from the semblance of unity suggested here, since no apparent chronology or thematic progression can be found in the volume, each poem has to be judged by its own merits.

Dedicated to the poet’s daughter, Rachel, the book opens with “The Story of Madeline,” a delightful poem inspired by the Madeline series of adventure books for children written and illustrated by the Austrian-American artist, Ludwig Bemelmans. The poem depicts Madeline, a small schoolgirl in Paris who “champions the underdog” and “brings to their knees the board of trustees.” As “a mischief-maker, a nonconformer” who breaks “the monotonous bread/ of a schoolgirl’s life,” Madeline “is what every good story needs.” As a mother, Song has opened up for her readers the little child’s world to which she is privy. Though small, it is a world of conflicts between generations. In “Old Story,” as the poet humorously and yet painfully narrates, she is shocked and saddened to hear her daughter say that she has dreamed of her mother’s death: “In her dreams I imagine I’ve died a hundred deaths./ Death by water,/ Death by fire,/ Death by woman-eating daughter.” In spite of the mother’s tender love and care of the daughter over the years, the relationship has somehow been poisoned, to the point that the poet/mother has to question the daughter, “when will you rest and believe/ I was mad with joy the spring you were born?” Interestingly, as the opening of the poem suggests, the narrator also sees a reflection of herself in her daughter; perhaps there is a realization that her mother before her must have also felt betrayed in a similar manner.

The double perspective of being a daughter and a mother is crucial to Cathy Song’s treatment of cross-generational issues. In some poems, the speaker is the mother; in others, she is the daughter. In yet others, the roles of both mother and daughter are telescoped in such a way that they are difficult to tell part. Employing such a double perspective, which is further compounded by the different cultural backgrounds of the generational roles, the poet seeks to establish (as the title of one poem suggests) “Points of Reference.”

As the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother, Song finds her mother’s folk ways to be a source of amusement, bewilderment, and perhaps also embarrassment as well as wisdom. In “Mother on River Street,” the poet characterizes her mother’s (and aunts’) conversations as “streams of unconsciousness” and “Cantonese soliloquies” that “make for a dizzy luncheon”; the mother’s reference to her husband as a “Lau Gung” (husband) who cannot tolerate her gossip strikes the daughter as “forty years slapped into two syllables.” In “A Conservative View,” the daughter satirizes the mother’s life philosophy of “the conservation of money”: “I was convinced my friends knew/ that the birthday gifts I presented at parties/ were wrapped in leftover sheets of our bathroom wallpaper.” Predictably, cultural conflicts abound in the mother-daughter poems. For example, in “Sunworshippers,” after hearing her mother’s lecture that sunbathers love themselves too much and that nobody will marry a woman whose skin “is sunbaked and dried up like beef jerky,” the daughter rebels and willfully turns anorexic: “the less I ate, the less/ there was of me to love.”

Paradoxically, however, a hint of pride and appreciation is often infused into such conflicts and satires. These mixed feelings are apparent in poems that deal with the daughter’s pregnancy and maternity. In “Eat,” eating, formerly a source of generational and cultural conflict, becomes the ground for reconciliation now that the daughter “must eat to feed/ not only all the world’s starving children/ but my own flesh and blood,/ my infant son,/ who fattens daily on my milk.” It is no small achievement in this volume, in fact, for Song to register the paradox that a daughter can be both satirical and grateful at the same time. Further illustrating this daughter-mother complex is “Shrinking the Uterus,” a poem which is all the more delightful in that it turns such a paradox into something humorous and amusing. In the poem, when the mother prepares “pig’s feet soup” (a Chinese tonic for women who have given birth) for her daughter, the narrator observes in an aside to herself: “ju gerk, pig’s feet soup,/ which I can hear rattling on the stove top/ as if the pig’s feet were tap dancing/ to a simmering frenzy”; but when the mother “leads me to the table,/ offers me at last the triumphant gelatinous hooves,” the daughter’s resistance amounts to no more than a not-so-clever critique of the stuff she is to eat: “silent pearly knobs of cartilage/ bobbing like dentures in a porcelain bowl.” In such poems, Song reveals that as the daughter becomes a mother herself, she also comes close to her mother’s position and takes it as a “point of reference.”

Poems in the second section of School Figures are heterogeneous in nature. “Out of Our Hands” commemorates the author’s friendship with Chinese American poet Wing Tek Lum. In describing Lum’s determination to write a lifelong poem (“The poem a subversive act./ The poem about being Chinese,/ skin the glorious color of chicken fat”), Song is perhaps also assuming an ironic stance toward some critics who tend to pigeonhole poets like herself and Lum into the “ethnic” (“chicken fat”) category. Family history, a subject Song excels at in previous volumes, returns in “Birds of Paradise,” a poem written apropos of a photograph of uncles and aunts taken prior to a whole series of failures in their lives. The poet is particularly struck by the sadness hidden in the eye of an aunt, who later becomes insane. Memories of childhood also resurface in “The Grammar of Silk,” a poem about a community of women (including Song’s mother) at Mrs. Umemoto’s sewing school, where the narrator learned “the charitable oblivion of hand and mind as one—/ a refuge such music affords the maker—/ the pleasure of notes in perfectly measured time.” The convergence of generations again emerges as a technique in such memories. “Adagio” employs such a technique when the narrator describes her daughter’s lackluster progress in her piano lessons; such lessons remind her of how, one day, she noticed that her own father, after years of oblivion to his daughter’s piano practice, “put aside his reading/ and shifting in his chair,/ . . . closed his eyes and listened.” The poem is made all the more poignant by the next piece, “Journey,” where the father is portrayed as meticulously preparing for his own death by “lightening” his load. Some of the poems described here are among the most memorable in the volume, though one might wish that the focus of this section were sharper.

“Journey” could have been grouped under the next section, where the sense of loss alluded to in Elizabeth Bishop’s epigraph (cited earlier) finds its fullest, and heaviest, expression. Apart from the memories of friends who passed away (“Disappearing Acts” and “Open Heart”) and the grief of a sister who has lost her twins forever (“Pearls” and “Leaf”), the poet also has to struggle with the final departure of the mother. “The Hotel by the Lake,” the title poem of this section, is possibly the best poem in the entire volume. In this supreme example of understatement, the poet—talking to a listener identified as “you”—describes the mother’s repeated trips to the hospital as a terminal cancer patient in terms of a mundane tourist’s trip to a lakeside hotel in Switzerland. Keeping her mother company at the hospital room (at the request of the father, who is probably too distraught to cope with the situation), the daughter remembers the hotel room where she and her mother stayed one summer:

And you were simply traveling together,
your mother having turned in early
for her “beauty sleep,”
and you, up late as usual,
studying the map,
planning tomorrow’s itinerary,
taking care of everything—
the suitcases packed and ready
for the porter’s knock in the morning.

Other than the narrator’s characterization of both mother and daughter as “travelers together” that begins the poem, and the father’s acknowledgment that the mother would feel more comfortable with the daughter at the hospital, the daughter does not volunteer explicitly what her thoughts and feelings are with regard to the mother’s impending death; there is even a childish absentmindedness in the way she describes the mother’s cancer as “tissues spongy with water,/ . . . blossoming in her body.” At first sight, the narrator’s absentmindedness and reticence, together with the ambiguous sense of closeness and remoteness that permeates not only this poem but also other mother-daughter poems, may be incomprehensible given the gravity of the occasion. Paradoxically, it is by restraining the narrator’s emotions that Song is best able to express them fully. This technique is perhaps a gift that few possess: to speak by unspeaking is a secret privy to those who, like Song, appreciate what it is to have been blessed and burdened with the love of a parent whose cultural background is different.

In the last section of School Figures, Song appears to be focusing on husband-and-wife relationships, including hers and other people’s. Such relationships can of course be romantic (“The Woman Who Loved Him—for Kenny and Maura”), but they can also be deliberately antiromantic. In “At Some Point,” the poet exploits the encounter between a male entomologist and a female passenger on a plane; though strangers, they both have similar marriage difficulties and therefore sympathize with each other. Another realistic poem in this group is “Vasectomy.” As a couple makes love for the first time after the operation to induce sterility, the poet imagines the wife to be lamenting over “the basket of her belly/ filled with rotting eggs,/ the ones that didn’t get picked.” Turning to her own husband-and-wife relationship, the poet is neither romantic nor antiromantic, but decidedly unromantic. In “Golden,” she writes:

With this kiss,

like the thousand you have lifted

out of my mouth—
pull you into my mouth, my body,
the history of its dark breath
coming up in waves
raw like beef shank, globe
of garlic, knotted ginger,
stink of kitchen
sweatshop, sweetshop, and labor

But this “unromantic” association of memories, the poet astutely points out, “links/ a chain of islands between us,/ volcanic ash and debris,/ a remedy of sunlight, sea-/ water, shell, and salt.” Remarkably, without sentimentalizing it, Song has achieved the totality of the love experience between husband and wife; it is such a totality that allows her to write of a long-lasting relationship in terms of being “in this together” and growing old together (“The Man in the Moon”), and in terms of knowing one another by “the things we know/ by heart” (“Things We Know by Heart”).

Because of Song’s renown as a Yale Younger Poet and a prominent Chinese American poet, School Figures is a volume which one might be tempted to judge more critically than it ought to be. Yet the samples cited above are more than gratifying not only because Song has excelled but also because she has expanded her repertoire and extended her range of emotions and expressions. Her treatment of the female body in many poems is especially varied and rich, and could become the basis of a new poetic. On the other hand, School Figures does have flaws stemming from certain problems, such as the grouping together of heterogeneous poems and the noticeable fluctuation between being obscure in some poems and prosaic in some others. One may hope that such flaws are indicative of a poet’s attempts to test new waters and break new ground.

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Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, October 1, 1994, p. 231.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, September 26, 1994, p. 59.

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