The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cathy Song’s “Stamp Collecting” is a lyric of three unequal stanzas. Its easy flowing and conversationally cadenced verse lines muse in a whimsical and wittily urbane tone of voice on postage stamps and what stamps can reveal about the countries that issue them. Ostensibly about the hobby of stamp collecting, the poem is also about geopolitics.

The opening stanza of the poem begins with the commonplace observation that many of the least wealthy nations issue the most eye-catching of postage stamps. These countries tend to produce commodities of trifling value for the world market, such as bananas, T-shirts, coconuts—and pretty postage stamps. The speaker of the poem takes as an example the island nation of Tonga, tucked in the South Pacific between New Zealand and Fiji. Tourists to Tonga may well expect to view dramatic natural beauty such as waterfalls or exotic birds, but the particular mystery they are guided to is merely oversize bats hanging upside down from fruit trees. The stamps of Tonga depict fruits—bananas pictured to look as exotic as seashells, pineapples dramatized to resemble erupting volcanoes, papayas colored to look like goat skulls.

The second stanza continues in a similar vein. Developing nations, which often have only lesser products to sell to the world, produce postage stamps that strain to be impressive. The stamps illustrate their nations’ faith in postcard-like snapshots of their efforts at progress and...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is written in unrhymed cadenced verse and in the language of intelligent conversation. Its lines flow with a smoothly pensive rhythm that indicates a speaker musing wittily and with gentle irony on his or her subject.

The poem also proceeds by comparison and contrast. “The poorest countries” (stanzas 1 and 2) are contrasted with the richer countries (stanza 3)—presumably, the former category includes the developing nations of the Third World while the latter includes the developed Western democracies and the Soviet bloc. Paralleling this contrast, the “prettiest” stamps of the poorer countries are contrasted with the “predictable” stamps of the wealthier. Again, the lightweight “impracticality” of the products of the poorest nations (bananas, coconuts, T-shirts) is juxtaposed against the heavyweight value of the developed nations (factories, trams, airplanes). Furthermore, within this overarching series of oppositions are subsidiary contrasts. For instance, within the description of the developing nations, there is, on one hand, the South Pacific nation of Tonga whose stamps are efforts to make their fruits look exotic and dramatic, and on the other hand, a Latin American country whose stamps are also attempts to make their doctors and hospitals appear progressive and modern.

Within the category of the developed nations also, contrasts appear. The “lucky” or capitalist countries are those that have aristocracy (“a queen”) or resources of nature (cherry blossoms or tigers);...

(The entire section is 625 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Chang, Juliana. “Reading Asian American Poetry.” MELUS 21, no. 1 (Spring, 1996): 81-98.

Chun, Gary. “Poet Sings of Journey of Life.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 11, 2002.

Cobb, Nora Okja. “Artistic and Cultural Mothering in the Poetics of Cathy Song.” In New Visions in Asian American Studies: Diversity, Community, Power, edited by Franklin Ng et al. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1994.

Fujita-Sato, Gayle K. “’Third World’ as Place and Paradigm in Cathy Song’s Picture Bride.” MELUS 15, no. 1 (Spring, 1988): 49-72.

Hugo, Richard. Foreword to Picture Bride, by Cathy Song. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983.

Lim, Shirley. Review of Picture Bride, by Cathy Song. MELUS 10, no. 3 (Fall, 1983): 95-99.

Song, Cathy. “Cathy’s Song: Interview with Cathy Song.” Interview by David Choo. Honolulu Weekly 4 (June 15, 1994): 6-8.

Song, Cathy, and Juliet S. Kono. Introduction to Sister Stew: Fiction and Poetry by Women. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1991.

Sumida, Stephen. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaii. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Wallace, Patricia. “Divided Loyalties: Literal and Literary in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Cathy Song, and Rita Dove.” MELUS 18, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 3-19.

Zhou, Xiaojing. “Intercultural Strategies in Asian American Poetry.” In Re-placing America: Conversations and Contestations, edited by Ruth Hsu et al. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.