The Youngest Daughter

by Cathy Song

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What is the characterization and symbolism in "The Youngest Daughter" by Cathy Song?

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Of Chinese and Korean ancestry, Cathy Song centers her poetry on events that have impacted her life. Her poem, "The Youngest Daughter," is one of these poems. Song has gained acceptance for describing the ordinary, mundane aspects of life and producing  exquisite lyrical verse. Her language and vocabulary choices are simple, yet her words confirm a deeper meaning.  

In the Oriental culture, there is a phrase that is considered the most important virtue: filial piety. This expression translates into being good to one’s parents; taking care of one’s parents; and sacrificing for their welfare.  This is the responsibility of the children.  As the daughter narrates the poem, the connection between the parent and child becomes perceptibly clear.

The mother and daughter relationship is the foundation of the poem.  The mother, now quite elderly,  needs her daughter.  Although the mother is able to do some things for herself, she relies heavily on the daughter to bathe and dress her.  To the poet, the bath symbolizes the unbreakable tie that the daughter has to the mother. 

This morning

her breathing was graveled,

her voice gruff with affection

when I wheeled her into the bath.

The mother has become the child.  As the mother is bathed, she finds pleasure and humor in the experience. She jokes about her large breasts like two large walruses [note the simile]. The mother closes her eyes, sighing with relaxation.

The experience for the daughter is quite different.  The day for her begins with the darkness and a headache as it has for many years. As she bathes her mother, the daughter thinks of her mother’s breasts in a more serious way: they were used for nursing her and her siblings and also giving pleasure to her father. The handling of her mother’s body has lost its tenderness through the years except that the daughter feels pity for the mother who is diabetic and insulin dependent.

Each day the two symbolic prisoners share a traditional tea time.  The mother is able to prepare it.  Silently, they drink and eat knowing that each wrestles with her own  thoughts. The mother knows that the daughter wants to be free to live her own life without being tied to her, yet the mother needs her.  The daughter strains to be unrestricted and free like the birds that fly up just as this thought passes through her. 

a thousand cranes curtain the window,

fly up in a sudden breeze

Ironically, the daughter salutes her mother’s health, making the reader wonder what she really wishes behind her toast.

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