“The Youngest Daughter” is a monologue in fifty-two lines of delicately cadenced verse divided into five stanzas of differing lengths. The speaker of the poem is the youngest daughter of her family, and she is burdened with caring for her aging parent. Her monologue reveals a conflict of emotions within her: Love and pity for her invalid mother clash with feelings of resentment and entrapment for having to deny herself.
In the first stanza, Cathy Song evokes the effects of aging upon both women. The housebound daughter describes her skin becoming “damp/ and pale,” while her mother’s skin is “parched” from having labored in the fields. Both images are joined referentially by sunlight or the lack of it. The daughter’s condition results from being cloistered and kept in the “dark/ for many years,” whereas her mother’s condition results from spending too much time in the “drying sun.” Thus one of the paradoxes in this poem emerges: The sufferings of mother and daughter, though different, are also similar. Another contradiction rests on the reversal of roles that continually takes place. The mother and daughter switch back and forth between being the caregiver and the cared for, the soother of pain and its cause. In stanza 2, the daughter’s eyes are burning with frustration. Ironically, it is suggested that the mother, who tries to soothe her daughter’s “migraine,” is also the cause of it.
In stanza 3, the daughter describes an instance of her role as caregiver and reflects on her mother’s plight. She attends her mother, bringing her in a wheelchair to her morning bath. As the daughter washes her mother’s breasts, the imagery not only reveals the daughter’s understanding that her mother’s body has been used to pleasure her husband and suckle her children but also suggests the daughter’s revulsion at such a fate. Song proceeds, in stanza 4, to express the odd tenderness the daughter feels toward her mother. The daughter pities the mother’s diabetic body scarred by insulin injections. She realizes that the two of them have always been trapped together in the same “sunless” room in a futile unity. Neither has a choice but to be there for the other.
The last stanza describes a reversal of roles as the mother prepares a meal for the daughter. As they eat, there is an unspoken understanding between the two. The daughter thinks, “She knows I am not to be trusted,/ even now planning my escape.” In the final irony of the poem, the daughter toasts her mother’s health, although it is her mother’s longevity that prevents the daughter from having a life of her own. Song ends enigmatically, however, with the daughter’s wistful (or perhaps ominous) description of the “thousand cranes” pictured on the window curtains that “fly up,” presumably to a freedom that may yet be hers.
The cadences of Song’s verse are as unobtrusive as breathing. They ripple and eddy in her speaker’s stream of thought that seemingly proceeds from the very heart of her being. Upon this introspective stream, Song launches intricately contrasting images that create the poem’s irony and paradox. Light and heat, food, and the body are the primary sources of Song’s imagery. The poem begins by contrasting mother and daughter in terms of sunlight and skin. For the speaker-daughter, “The sky has been dark/ for many years,” a powerful image of long-term deprivation that suggests a seed with arrested germination. Expressed in terms of the body, her “skin has become as damp/ and pale as rice paper”: overly delicate, pallid, and...
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friable. The daughter’s sunless state contrasts starkly with the mother’s overexposure to the sun that has parched her skin in the fields. The mother’s experience of the exterior heat and light of the sun is, in turn, contrasted with an internal fever and pain that sears the daughter’s body. The daughter says that when she touches her eyelids, they feel “hot enough to burn”; her “skin, aspirin colored,/ tingles with migraine”; and “pain flares up” on her face.
These two initial stanzas intimate the long-term situation of the two women. The rest of the poem describes two specific scenes, a morning bath and an afternoon meal, that are symmetrically balanced and contrasted: In the morning, the daughter is the caregiver bathing her mother; in the afternoon, the mother is the cook making their meal. Both situations are replete with painful body images. In the morning scene, the mother is an invalid who must be “wheeledinto her bath.” Her skin is “freckled” with mementos of pain, the “blue bruises” of thirty years of insulin injections. However, the commanding body image is of the mother’s breasts “floating in the milky water/ like two walruses,/ flaccid and whiskered around the nipples.” Startling and unsavory as this image is, its effect is heightened by the gustatory image that follows: “I scrubbed them with a sour taste/ in my mouth, thinking:/ six children and an old man/ have sucked from these brown nipples.”
Gustatory and food imagery fills the lines describing the afternoon meal. In this scene, the women’s roles are reversed, the mother becoming the cook and the daughter the diner. This role reversal completes Song’s construction of the two women’s relationship as a paradoxically life-giving and life-sapping one, at once symbiotic, parasitic, and codependent. Song’s food imagery takes on symbolic overtones when the daughter thinks of “a slice of pickled turnip” as a “token” for her “white body.” The women’s “ritual” meal, then, is a communion approaching cannibalism wherein the communicants feed off the daughter’s body, consuming her opportunities for life. Hence the daughter toasts her mother’s health with tea, a bitter cup. At the same time, the mother knows the daughter is planning escape like the thousand cranes of the window curtain that “fly up in a sudden breeze.”
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