Picture Bride, 1983
Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, 1988
School Figures, 1994
The Land of Bliss, 2001
Sister Stew: Fiction and Poetry by Women, 1991 (with Juliet S. Kono)
A chronological examination of the poems of Cathy Song’s books would result, among other things, in an intimate autobiography and memoir. The title poem of the first collection, Picture Bride, winner of the Yale Younger Poets award for 1982, sets the tone and thematic direction for most of Song’s writing. Meditations and reflections on her family dominate her poems, and she celebrates the self with sensitivity and precision.
After receiving her B.A. from Wellesley College in 1977, Song graduated with an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University in 1981. After teaching at various colleges and universities, she returned to her home in Honolulu with her husband, a physician, and her two children.
Song’s fascination with her own domestic history begins with the title poem of her first book, in which more than two-thirds of the poems pertain to her grandparents, parents, and siblings, as well as her husband and children and herself. The poems are recognizably autobiographical and recognizably written from a female perspective. The first lines of “Picture Bride” refer to the poet’s Korean grandmother, who came to Hawaii and married a Korean immigrant thirteen years older than herself, with whom she had been matched by photograph. Song also inserts herself: “She was a year younger/ than I,/ twenty-three when she left Korea.” At the age of twenty-four Cathy Song was working on her master’s degree in Boston and living in a world very different from that of the Hawaiian sugarcane fields.
Her proposed title for the first book was “From the White Place,” a reference to the art of Georgia O’Keeffe, which significantly influenced her imagery after she encountered the book Georgia O’Keeffe (1976). The five sectional headings in Picture Bride, beginning with “Black Iris,” are drawn from the world of art, but the title of the book selected by the publisher directs the reader toward Song’s ethnic interests.
Song was twenty-seven when Picture Bride was selected for the Yale Younger Poets award. In 1987, following a stay in Colorado, she moved back to Hawaii with her family. Her second book, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, contains poems in which snow falls (in contrast with the majority of her poems, which are set in Hawaii), and the title returns to the language of art. Song has observed, “These are poems about the window and the field,” about the window one occupies every day and the field beyond the glass into which one looks. She is concerned with perspective in both space and time, and the title poem is about the relationship between a mother and child (referred to as “you” throughout) in the summer during which the child’s sister was born. In conclusion, Song asserts that the child’s heart is not in its smile in the photographs because the child has given it to the boy “who sits under the trees/ . . . waiting for the words to come in.” Parenthetically she states, “(frameless windows, squares of light/ float upward in the dark like luminous kites).”
Song’s collection School Figures sustains her focus on her family. “Old Story” concerns her daughter, “the family truth-teller,” and “A Conservative View” begins with the line “Money, my mother/ never had much.” “Mooring” depicts her daughter and infant son bathing together, and in “Tangerines and Rain” Song portrays her father picking the “Green and neon globes of orange” as her children call up to him. In this and other poems, ethnic identity is suggested but it is not the thematic focus. In “The Grammar of Silk,” for example, Song recalls going to sewing school at Mrs. Umemoto’s house, which is located near Kaimuki Dry Goods, but the poem itself has little to do with ethnic issues; instead it concerns the mother’s offering of the sewing school as a “sanctuary” in which the speaker has learned the “charitable oblivion/ of hand and mind as one–/ a refuge such music affords the maker–/ the pleasure of notes in perfectly measured time.” The poem becomes an ars poetica.
The last four poems of School Figures indicate Song’s prevailing tendencies as she entered middle age. As in earlier work, she is concerned with her family, and the references to artists (John Constable, Piet Mondrian, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Paul Cezanne, Pieter Brueghel) suggest her “painterly” concerns. Her poems often depend for their effects on color and perspective. The only allusion in this collection to an ethnic context is passing but significant: “Views of Mt. Fuji our devotion might have seemed,/ persistent as Hokusai’s fine gradations of seeing,/ intent on exactitude, replication, students of nature uncovering/ the mineral world, the invisible fire beneath the ice.” That may be said to be the aim of nearly all serious poets.
The Land of Bliss, while not as well received as Song’s previous collections, marks another stage in the poet’s exploration of family as her parents age. Several of the most moving poems deal with her mother’s hospitalizations for depression. Others draw on Song’s ancestral Korean vision of the afterlife.