Stamp Collecting

by Cathy Song

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The Poem

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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 modernization: images of new dams, pictures of young native doctors sporting stethoscopes, scenes of recently built medical schools that unfortunately succeed only in looking like American motels.

In the third and final stanza, the speaker of the poem turns to consider the postage stamps of wealthier countries. Their stamps are more mundane and predictable. Within this group, nevertheless, there are differences. The more fortunate of these countries can boast of native assets such as tigers or queens. The Japanese, for instance, can issue stamps boasting of their cherry blossoms. The less fortunate of these developed countries, however, who can boast of neither royalty nor exotic fauna nor enticing flora, can only print bleak, stark stamps that discourage beauty and fancy. In their stamps the landscape of such countries seems to be frigid and icebound, and their stamps tend to celebrate factories, trams, and airplanes. At the same time, their stamps seem to scorn the rest of the world and to promote themselves as irresistible forces of history.

Forms and Devices

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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...

(This entire section contains 625 words.)

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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); on the other hand, there are the more “pity”-inspiring or socialist countries that have only statues of athletes and resources of industry (factories and planes) on their stamps. With such comparisons and contrasts, Song conveys a sense of balance, creates opportunities for elaboration, and uses the opposing terms to comment on each other tacitly, if not explicitly.

Vivid imagery is an important device for this poem, as it is for Song’s other works. The banana stamp of Tonga is exquisitely described through a simile comparing it to an extravagant “butter-varnished seashell.” Similarly, Tonga’s fruit bats, or flying foxes, as they are also called, are most aptly described in another simile comparing them to “black umbrellas swing[ing] upside down.” The quality of poverty prevalent in some developing nations is brilliantly captured in the image “mule-scratched hills,” evoking a picture of an arid, barely arable land from which generations of peasants have eked out a marginal subsistence.

Song’s word choice, along with her imagery, also evinces a playful wittiness. The image of a Tongan pineapple stamp resembling a “volcano [with] a spout of green on top” will bring a chuckle to the reader amused by the witty hyperbole and the exaggerated grandiosity of the comparison. Similarly, the aptly phrased image of the socialist countries’ “athletes marbled into statues” conjures up associations with the artificial, steroid-fed human specimens who represented Eastern European nations at games during the Cold War era. These socialist countries are also personified as “turn[ing] their noses upon the world”—a wittily suggestive pun on “upon” that suggests snobbishness (as in turning up one’s nose at a contemptible object) as well as aggressiveness (as in siccing hounds upon a quarry), while also hinting slyly at the unforgiving nature of these nations which do not turn their cheeks but turn up their noses at others. The word “climate” is another example of double entendre used in characterizing the socialist countries, for it not only denotes the harsh winters of Russia and Eastern Europe but also connotes metaphorically the intellectually and politically repressive regimes that dominated these communist states.

Song also employs some teasingly allusive words in her poem. For instance, the developing nations have “mystery” and their people “believe”—terms connoting a religious-like faith. The developed nations, however, appear to have lost this sense of religious awe and faith; they are only “predictable” and “stark.”


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