Cathy Song (1955- )
About the Poet
A Hawaiian of Chinese and Korean ancestry, Cathy Song centers her verse on island themes and activities and understated pastoral settings. Her language is standard English inset with words and phrases from Pacific and Asian sources. She has gained credence for lifting the mundane from homely backgrounds to produce a lyric strangeness offset by teasing and, at times, startling analogies.
Song was born in Honolulu on August 20, 1955, to airline pilot Andrew and seamstress Ella Song. Their marriage, a "picture bride" arrangement, and the resulting closeness with her grandparents, influenced Song's concepts of male-female relationships and the tri-generational home. Coming of age in Wahiawa, Oahu, she began writing in high school and pursued a career in writing. She obtained a B.A. in English from Wellesley College and an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. At age 21, she published a short story in Hawaii Review and continues submitting works to Greenfield Review, Tendril, Dark Brand, Asian-Pacific Literature, and Bamboo Ridge: The Hawaii Writers' Quarterly.
A first collection, Picture Bride (1983), which won the Yale Younger Poets Award and a National Book Critics Circle award nomination, personalizes the slow assimilation of women into society. Song draws inspiration from modern Southwestern painter Georgia O'Keeffe's flower portraits. Song names each section for a flower and exalts O'Keeffe's work in "From the White Place" and "Blue and White Lines after O'Keeffe."
After marrying medical student Douglas McHarg Davenport, Song composed a second anthology, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), which develops her meditative vision while furthering themes of family history. With island poet Juliet S. Kono, she coedited and contributed poetry and prose to Sister Stew (1991). Three years later, she published a third volume, School Figures (1994). Her writing has earned the Hawaii Award for Literature and a Shelley Memorial Award.
Song's blend of deceptive quiet and spontaneous self-study powers "The White Porch" (1983). A subtly erotic piece bound up in the commonalities of a woman's day, the poem unfolds in a three-stage presentation. The tender chiming between "I" and "you" begins in the first stanza, which is set on a family porch at 12:05 p.m. Languorous diction pictures time stretched out like a lawn and compares wet hair to "a sleeping cat," an introit to the inswept sexual passions that emerge with feline grace. Line 21 begins the upward spiral of sensuality as the female speaker acknowledges "this slow arousal."
The intrusion of a third person, the speaker's mother, literally grabs attention by grasping the daughter's braided rope of hair, a symbol of patterned proprieties. The hair, no longer lush from a fresh shampoo, continues to unite images as the mother's ring snags strands, a suggestion that parental control is a minor intrusion on the daughter's mature passion. Like the knotted hair, the mother curls into "tight blankets" as the daughter loosens her hair and signals a welcome to her lover.
From the same period, "Beauty and Sadness" studies femininity in the "women of Edo." Dedicated to Utamaro, the opening lines picture the artist, a "quick, nimble man," as an unseen presence, similar to the waiting lover in "The White Porch." The images stress fragility in "skinlike paper" and "fleeting loveliness," the source of the poem's melancholy. The second stanza masses luxuriant images of sight, smell, and touch that transform women into "beautiful iridescent insects, / creatures from a floating world." The mood begins a downward sweep in the third stanza as the models display an outer beauty balanced by melancholy. The trembling lip takes on the surface tension of a blood droplet, a comparison that tops vulnerable veins with a transparent skin of female elegance.
In the concluding stanza, the poet's delicate picture sequence captures both the act of sketching loveliness and the brief moment of pose that strikes the artist's eye. Although Song dedicates the work to the artist, her verse speaks for the women. Untouched by Utamaro, they change into "dusty ash-winged moths"; their indifference and emotional withdrawal separates them from artistic technique.
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Summarize shifting and intertwined relationships in Song's "Picture Bride." Enlarge on the images of blended cultures with comparisons to marriages described in the writings of Maxine Hong Kingston, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Michael Dorris, and Amy Tan.
2. Characterize Song's female personae in "The Youngest Daughter," "Lost Sister," "Blue Lantern," "Waialua," "China Town," "The White Porch," and "The Seamstress."
3. Discuss how Song's poems express Audre Lorde's concept of poetic voyaging to inner sources.