This Old Poem #85:
Cathy Song’s Handful
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/21/04

  Cathy Song is 1 of those poetasters that- in her soul- knows she’s not good. Do I know this with metaphysical certitude? No. But the fact that she’s not 1 of these annoying PC Elitists that ceaselessly preach says to me that she was probably a stereotypical MFAer who- because of her sex & race- was urged by some well-meaning professorial dope to ‘tell her tale’ for the benefit of recording her ‘struggles.
  After all, her bio details this struggle so vividly:

  Cathy Song (b. 1955) was born in Honolulu, of Chinese and Korean descent. Song left Hawaii to pursue her education, receiving a B.A. from Wellesley College and an M.F.A. from Boston University. After graduating in 1981 she returned to Honolulu and in 1983 published her first collection of poetry, Picture Bride, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award. She has published two other volumes of poetry, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988) and School Figures (1994). She currently teaches at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

  There’s a lot of struggle in there somewhere- just gotta be, after all- this is America, & she’s a non-white male. Well, maybe there’s some struggle in this praise of her book of poems called The Land Of Bliss:

  Cathy Song's fourth collection of poetry unveils glimpses of the elusive but ever-present power of wisdom and compassion. Recognizing that we have the ability to create our own misery as well as our own bliss, she finds the unexpected in broken lives, despair, and even seemingly joyous occasions. Song's poems are often, like a handful of water, "cold and impossibly/clear, unlike anything/you've ever held before."

  Cathy Song is the author of Picture Bride, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; Frameless Windows, Squares of Light; and School Figures. Her work has been widely anthologized in such publications as Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation, The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Her poems have also appeared on the buses of Atlanta, the subway cars of New York, the Poetry Daily website, and, most recently, in The Best American Poetry 2000. The recipient of numerous awards, including the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry, the Shelly Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Hawaii Award for Literature, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize, Song lives in Honolulu with her husband and three children. 
  Let’s look at some of this ‘water’:


Like scooping water by the handful
out of a lake,
you write a poem,
contain it, gaze
into the small
cup of your hand.
While you admire
what feels cold and impossibly
clear, unlike anything
you've ever held before,
you still did not get it.
Into the momentary displacement
left by the dipping of your hand
flows more.

  Is this a terrible poem? No. But it’s not good. It’s a 1-note metaphor with an utterly predictable resolution. But it could be better. That’s why it’s the titular poem. But before fixin’ iy up let’s look at some snips of more typical CS logorrhea. This from Magic Island:

Voices are lost
in waves of wind
that catches a kite
and keeps it there
in the air above the trees.
If the day has one color, it is this:
the blue immersion of horizons,
the sea taking the sky like a swimmer.

The picnickers have come
to rest their bicycles
in the sprawling shade.
Under each tree, a stillness
of small pleasures:
a boy, half in sunlight,
naps with his dog;
a woman of forty
squints up from her book
to bite into an apple….


  I lost count of the clichés. Guess how it ends?:

Suspicious of so much sunshine,
they keep expecting rain.

  This is bad teenage writing. In fact, it’s worse than that- it’s something even pre-teens would cringe over. Here’s more dreck- this from Heaven (aren’t you just imagining all the clichés that could drip from her mind?):

He thinks when we die we'll go to China.
Think of it--a Chinese heaven
where, except for his blond hair,
the part that belongs to his father,
everyone will look like him.
China, that blue flower on the map,
bluer than the sea
his hand must span like a bridge
to reach it.
An octave away.

  That’s the opening stanza. See what I mean about her not being a hardcore PC Elitist? It is utterly amazing that this stuff is praised. OK, don’t say something ‘negative’ if that’s what you fear. But, my oh my, why praise this stuff? It is so banal & generic that I’m at a loss- yes, she mentions China, but that place name is easily morphed to any other place name for any other ethnic group. This sort of ‘I am this’ poem is a virtual template. Let’s check out the ending:

It must be in the blood,
this notion of returning.
It skipped two generations, lay fallow,
the garden an unmarked grave.
On a spring sweater day
it's as if we remember him.
I call to the children.
We can see the mountains
blue above the air.
If you look really hard
says my son the dreamer,
leaning out from the laundry's rigging,
the work shirts fluttering like sails,
you can see all the way to heaven.

  Did I really need to underline the clichés? Apparently since morons foist this kind of crap upon us:

  "In Cathy Song's poetry I keep recognizing my own various approaches to and avoidances of the writing job: the just claims which keep me from it, my need to hide my meaning at the same time as i reveal it, the need to go, 'deeper into the darkest room,' trying to the core of something permanent,' and what always accompanies that need­­'distraction itself….obstacles to keep her from entering the last room,' wanting and not wanting to arrive there….Houses and the imagery of houses, ­­doors, curtains, kitchens, windows, rooms­­ are important to Song's work. I am tempted to think that this is a natural outcome of a female take on experience, though maybe it's only my own desire for security and shelter."­­ -Phylis Lodge


  "To read poems as true on the tongue and the eye as these use a deep, transcendent sweetness. I feel transported, restored to gravity-ground, melodious mind."­­ -Naomi Shihab Nye


  "To follow Cathy Song's collection of poems over the years is to reach, in this season, 'The Expense of Mildew'; from daughter, to wife and mother, to the daughter of aging parents, Song has arrived full spiral. This is bliss."­­ -Kimiko Hahn


  Ugh. The rewrite:



Out of a lake,
you contain a poem,
in your hand.
What feels unlike anything
in the momentary displacement
left by the dipping of your hand
flows more.

  Unlike the original, the water is not compared to a poem, the poem is like water. This is a bit more original, & more striking. After the simple comparison there is the result, & a small aftermath. The original, however, is more ‘telling’ & does not trust the reader to make connections. Less is often more in poetry & these 2 poems are a stark example. CS knows this, Let’s wish her well in macramé.

Final Score: (1-100):

Cathy Song’s Handful: 40
TOP’s Handful: 68

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