“Sunworshippers” is included in School Figures, a collection populated by various characters from Song’s family. As the idiosyncrasy of relatives often gets on her nerves, she cannot accept them at face value and must negotiate, with herself, for ways of coming to terms with her family heritage. “Sunworshippers,” like Song’s many other poems characterizing members of her family, exemplifies this position.
The poem begins with the poet’s recollection of her mother’s preachy lectures about sunbathers: “Who will marry you/ if your skin is sunbaked and dried up like beef jerky?” Raising her daughters by Old World precepts, the mother would make them wear hats and gloves when they went for a drive and would use an umbrella under the sun. Contemplating her mother’s philosophy about the body now that she is a woman, the speaker relates how, in her struggles against those disagreeable preachings, she became anorexic. In a voice that is at once sarcastic, resentful, and perhaps mixing delight with regret, she satirizes the mother’s view of the body. Taking a deliberately confrontational stance, she interprets the mother’s cautions against exposure to the sun in terms of prohibitions against loving oneself “too much.” As if to retaliate, she eats less and less.
Despite its alarming development as a health issue, anorexia also serves as a conceit for the speaker’s construction of her identity. Akin to being a portrait of the artist as a young woman, the poem reaches some sort of epiphany by celebrating the speaker’s hypersensitive and even mystical capabilities. As someone with a heightened awareness of self, she “devoured radiance,/ essential as chlorophyll.” It is under these strange circumstances that she experiences an intellectual coming-of-age, so that she can finally claim that “Undetected, I slipped in and out of books,/ passages of music, brightly painted rooms// to weave one’s self, ropes of it, whole/ and fully formed, was a way of shining/ out of this world.” Since the context for this experience is anorexia, there is an implied irony that this moment of extreme brilliance may be a form of delusion induced by fasting. The tension between mother and daughter that started the poem remains unresolved. Paradoxically, this lack of resolution is what keeps the poet motivated to write.