Cathy Song 1983
“Lost Sister” was published in 1983 in Cathy Song’s first volume of poems, Picture Bride. Her book earned the Yale Younger Poets Award for 1983, as well as a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Poet Richard Hugo, the Yale Award judge, praised Picture Bride for its “candor and generosity,” and he specifically cited “Lost Sister” as an example of the way “Song does not shrink from the hard realities of the societal and familial traps set for women.” In this poem, neither the daughter who stays home in China, nor the sister who leaves for the United States has found freedom. By employing images of movement and stasis, and by exploring the customs of naming and foot binding, Song attends to the Chinese woman’s struggle for identity, whether at home or on “another shore.” The poem is a cameo of the struggles women in many parts of the world face in negotiating freedom and power.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Cathy Song has returned there as an adult to live and write. Thus, most of the poems in Picture Bride tell family stories that grow out of the islands’ rich soil. Some, such as “Lost Sister,” reach back and across to more distant, but no less powerful stories about Song’s Chinese and Korean ancestors. Because of this, the textures and tales of the book reach far beyond family history and beyond Hawaii. In choosing Song’s book, Richard Hugo recognized its ability to express, through Hawaii’s many cultures, the stories of anyone who has struggled to survive and adapt in a new land. Picture Bride is a polyphony of
voices—Korean, Chinese, Japanese—that might otherwise be silent. In particular, “Lost Sister” tells the story of women who, like Cathy Song’s Chinese grandmother, face the paradoxes of freedom and belonging.
Cathy Song was born on August 20, 1955, in Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, to a Chinese-American mother and a Korean-American father. Song spent her early childhood in the small town of Wahiawa, which, like many other rural Hawaiian communities, made its livelihood raising sugar and pineapples for export. The title poem of Picture Bride speculates what the experience of immigrating to Hawaii must have been like for Song’s Korean grandmother. It imagines her feelings upon first looking into “the face of the stranger / who was her husband,” the man who had been waiting for her, picture in hand, “in the camp outside / Waialua Sugar Mill.” In “Easter: Wahiawa, 1959,” Song connects her memory of gathering Easter eggs as a four-year-old with the image of her Korean grandfather’s hard-earned find of “a quail egg or two” along the riverbank as a young child, eggs that “would gleam from the mud / like gigantic pearls.”
Song began the writing life as a young student in the middle-class suburbs of Honolulu and continued at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she was mentored by poet John Unterecker. She finished her undergraduate studies at Wellesley College in 1977 and went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1981 from Boston University. In 1987 she and her husband, Douglas Davenport, moved back to Honolulu, where they and their three children now live. Her second volume, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, was published in 1988, and her most recent volume, School Figures, appeared in 1994. Besides winning the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award, Song has also won the Shelley Memorial Award and, in 1994, the Hawaii Award for Literature.
In recent years, Song has taught creative writing for the Poets in the Schools program in Hawaii and at several universities. Since the publication of School Figures, Song has been concentrating on her own writing, supported in part by an NEA Poetry Fellowship, and has a manuscript for another volume of poetry forthcoming. She is a member of Bamboo Ridge, a group of Hawaiian poets and fiction writers. In 1991, the Bamboo Ridge Press published Sister Stew, an anthology edited by Song and Juliet Kono featuring the fiction and poetry of contemporary Hawaiian women.
even the peasants
named their first daughters
the stone that in the far fields 5
could moisten the dry season,
could make men move mountains
for the healing green of the inner hills
glistening like slices of winter melon.
And the daughters were grateful: 10
They never left home.
To move freely was a luxury
stolen from them at birth.
Instead, they gathered patience,
learning to walk in shoes 15
the size of teacups,
the arc of their movements
as dormant as the rooted willow,
as redundant as the farmyard hens. 20
But they traveled far
learning to stretch the family rice,
to quiet the demons,
the noisy stomachs. 25
There is a sister
across the ocean,
who relinquished her name,
diluting jade green
with the blue of the Pacific. 30
Rising with a tide of locusts,
she swarmed with others
to inundate another shore.
There are many roads 35
and women can stride along with men.
But in another wilderness,
can strangulate like jungle vines, 40
The meager provisions and sentiments
of once belonging—
fermented roots, Mah-Jong tiles and firecrackers—
a flimsy household
in a forest of nightless cities. 45
A giant snake rattles above,
spewing black clouds into your kitchen.
slip in and out of your keyholes,
making claims you don’t understand, 50
tapping into your communication systems
of laundry lines and restaurant chains.
You find you need China:
your one fragile identification,
a jade link 55
handcuffed to your wrist.
You remember your mother
who walked for centuries,
and like her, 60
you have left no footprints,
but only because
there is an ocean in between,
the unremitting space of your rebellion.
In the first lines of part one, the speaker of the poem takes the reader immediately to the homeland of Song’s maternal grandmother and introduces a Chinese naming custom that will be reflected and refracted throughout the poem. First daughters throughout China, “even the peasants,” are often named “Jade,” a precious stone recognized not only for its beauty but for its magical healing powers.
Here the speaker describes the powers of jade, using rural, natural, and agricultural images that will be contrasted in part two with menacing images of urban life. The jade stones and, by association, the young women so named are believed to bring life and healing to their homeland. Song’s skillful use of color imagery can be seen here in the juxtaposition of the luminous green jade with the daughter-blessed, greening landscape of China, those “inner hills / glistening like slices of winter melon.” Song’s musical repetition of sounds and words in the lines “could moisten the dry season / could make men move mountains” also implies a kind of pastoral grace and power in the lives of these daughters. The image of “far fields” where the stones work their magic suggests not only the vast stretches of farmland in the China of Song’s ancestry, but also begins the poem’s melancholy play upon traveling “far,” whether at home or abroad. It is a theme established in earlier poems in Picture Bride—in images of long walks, long bus rides, journeys into the forests of lilikoi vines, and journeys across the ocean.
The speaker next tells us “the daughters were grateful,” ostensibly to have such a beautiful name and to occupy such an important place in the family. Consequentially, “they never left home.” But there are other reasons for their stasis that cast an ironic light on such gratitude. Subtly but suddenly, the reader discovers in the next lines that the freedom to leave home was “stolen” from the beginning. The harsh reality Song introduces in these lines is the centuries-old custom of foot binding.
From the end of the T’ang dynasty in the eleventh century a.d. until as recently as the 1920s, Chinese women, initially of the upper class, were required to begin binding their feet around five years of age in order to make them tiny and “feminine.” Using three tightly wound yards of cloth, the binding procedure distorted the natural flexion and shape of the foot by forcibly bending the toes under the metatarsal area of the foot—sometimes even breaking the bones—and tightly drawing the entire upper foot toward the heel, leaving the big toe free to serve as the delicate point of the “lotus petal.” The binding thus created a foot that would fit in a three-inch shoe the shape of a half moon or a flower petal. A woman’s bound feet were called
- An audio recording of a reading by Cathy Song at the Honolulu Academy of Art was made on April 2, 1983.
- The Best of Bamboo Ridge (audio recordings), Vols. 1 and 2, include Song reading several of her own poems.
- Poetry in Motion, a project designed to bring poetry into the daily life of the American public, has featured “Lost Sister” on posters installed in buses and subways in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
her “golden lotuses,” a euphemism for a crippling custom that effectively rendered all but the poorest laboring classes of Chinese women “footless” and immobile for centuries. As the poem says, these women had to learn to “travel far” in shoes “the size of teacups, / without breaking—.” With this image, Song deftly renders a portrait of women forced to be quite delicate physically, but strong emotionally. They must be “rooted” like the willow tree, itself a symbol of both sadness (the weeping willow, which is native to China) and of inexhaustible life.
Hobbled in body, Chinese women faced another sort of journey: “surviving.” The demons one might meet on the road, according to many Chinese folk tales, are met instead under these daughters’ own roofs, incarnated as “the noisy stomachs” of hungry children, husbands, and in-laws. This startling new meaning for “travel” provides a pivot point in the poem. Against it, the “freedom” in part two will emerge with ambiguity.
Cathy Song’s affinity for color and painting shapes this introduction to the “rebellious” daughter: jade’s pure green is “diluted” by Pacific blue. This daughter left home, crossed the ocean for a different life, and thereby “relinquished her name.” Names are not bestowed lightly in Chinese culture; they hold sacred meanings and power. But instead of saying so outright, the speaker uses an image of color blending to keep alive in the poem the strength of jade as a symbol for Chinese beauty and loyalty and the blue of the Pacific as the vast threat to that cultural and familial purity.
The poem compares this daughter to the locust, an insect associated with plague, famine, and destruction. In so doing, it makes important metaphorical links that reach both back into part one, and further into part two. The locust image is a sharp contrast to the submissive daughter who nourishes her family in part one. As an image of famine and anonymity, this swarming “tide of locusts” reaches forward into the poem toward the disillusioning portrait of the United States as a place that starves both body and soul. With a line to itself, “In America” parallels the poem’s opening lines, “In China,” and prepares the reader for more deep contrasts. Rumor has it that across the ocean, women, footloose and free, “can stride along with men” on America’s “many roads.” Those tightly wrapped sisters who remain behind can only wear a “redundant” path between stove and farmyard with their tiny feet.
This stanza exposes the harsh reality behind the rumor. For the immigrant, the possibilities strangle rather than nourish. The poem lists artifacts of “once belonging,” which are unmistakably Chinese in order to sharpen the tone of loneliness in the strange land. The Chinese use fermented roots of turnips, carrots, and other vegetables in soup and broth. Mah-Jong tiles are the pictorial pieces of a popular game usually played among four people, and often associated, like poker, with gambling. And firecrackers are a staple in Chinese celebrations, used for welcoming guests, chasing away evil, and attracting the gods’ attention at festivals and holidays.
Yet, these things cannot really re-create home in an alien, urban landscape, devoid as it is not only of “jade” in its many meanings, but of all color except dismal shades of black and white. How could any sister be but “lost” in this nightmarish jungle of a place, an atmosphere the poem establishes by comparing landlords to pasty ghosts who “slip in and out of keyholes” and city subways to Jumanjisized snakes. The inhospitable Americans in this portrait use language as a weapon against the immigrant—to confuse, cheat, and spy. Until now, the speaker has described and reported in the third person, but it is important to note that in this stanza, the address to this sister is in the second person, “you” and “your,” and the poem thereby acquires a more intimate and urgent voice.
With complete candor, the speaker describes the lesson this sister presumably has learned, or at least needs to have articulated. “You find you need China,” it declares, and that means recognizing the ways in which she is bound to the homeland. Here, jade returns, now “handcuffed to your wrist,” an image of binding that makes the reader recall the constrictive shoes in part one. Whether a woman stays or goes, the poem seems to be saying, true freedom is won neither through submission nor rebellion. The poem offers no alternative explicitly, but hints at its possibility: “you have left no footprints,” the speaker tells the lost sister, but “only because” of the rebellious path she has taken. There need not be this “unremitting space,” the language implies. Behind “only because” lies another path, the possibility the poem holds out for a way of life in which a Chinese woman may be named Jade and also leave footprints.
Limitations and Opportunities
Together, the two parts of “Lost Sister” challenge conventional definitions of “limitation” and “opportunity.” Which daughter is the limited one? Which one has opportunities? The second stanza casts doubt on the name “Jade,” with all of its associations of power and healing influence that in most circumstances would create a better, more prosperous life. Yes, this precious green stone could do its work in “the far fields,” but the fact is, this Jade-daughter cannot even leave her own house, bound as she is by both body and custom. The poem says she “traveled far” in a different way, however, in “learning to stretch the family rice.” In casting survival as a kind of journey, the poem asks us to consider “opportunity” in ways quite foreign to the American dream, where mobility, acquisition, and advancement are taken for granted.
In contrast, the daughter in part two who travels far for the opportunities rumored as America’s “many roads,” finds herself instead lost in some “nightless” city, bound and hobbled by language, economics, and hostility. The fantasy of a life free from limiting roles and traditions becomes instead a “wilderness” of possibilities that strangle rather than liberate. While this woman does not suffer the limitations and pain of bound feet, she has not found the opportunity to “stride along with men,” either. Metaphors of vines and handcuffs carry the image of binding from part one of “Lost Sister” to part two, defining freedom and its limits through figurative language. Both submission and rebellion create their own sets of limitations and opportunities, and the poem is unwilling, ultimately, to privilege one way of being over the other.
Identity and Sex Roles
In a country in which infant girls are known to have been quietly smothered at birth, where older girls have been sold by their own families into slavery, or where “bad” daughters-in-law have reportedly been tortured, it is no wonder that Song can barely veil the bitter irony of naming first daughters after a precious stone. The value of jade, and the importance Song grants to the word “could,” through its repetition and placement in lines 6 and 7—“could moisten the dry season, / could make men move mountains”—speaks volumes about the potential power of women to heal and transform. But the power is laid waste. The China portrayed in this poem considers mobility for women a “luxury” society cannot afford and thus steals such freedom from them “at birth.” Yet, the same China that hobbles the feet of its women also, paradoxically, tells them tales of “the woman warrior,” a phenomenon Maxine Hong Kingston explored in her 1976 novel by that name. Weapon in hand, feet shod for running, this “warrior woman” spirit anticipates striding alongside men on another shore in part two of “Lost Sister.”
This poem makes it impossible to consider a Chinese woman’s identity apart from her traditional sex role and its inherent set of paradoxes. In China, she is both victim and survivor of the culture that binds her feet and circumscribes her movement, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. In America, she is strong enough to have crossed the blue threshold to the West, only to find herself stereotyped as quiet, cute, and delicate. Song weights the acts of naming and binding with this heavy dilemma of identity, culminating in the last stanza: “your one fragile identification, / a jade link / handcuffed to your wrist.” Jade, symbol of her identity as a Chinese woman, is at once essential and limiting—a blessing and a curse.
Topics for Further Study
- Trace the rise and fall of a modern fashion that has been harmful to the body, male or female. What sorts of cultural forces brought the trend into being? Kept it there? What was responsible for its demise?
- Write an imaginary series of letters between the “jade” daughter who stays in China and the sister who leaves. Include not only the characters’ thoughts and feelings about their respective situations, but also the social, political, and economic realities of their time and place.
- Write a poem about your own footprints. Where do you leave them? What is their shape? Who finds them? Where are they going?
- Investigate the lives of two or three Americans of Asian descent who have made notable contributions to science, law, education, business, or the arts.
When most people think of wilderness, they think of those vast stretches of natural space that resist human habitation. Deserts, dense forests, glaciers, oceans—the perils and wastes of these spaces challenge human survival. T. S. Eliot’s landmark 1922 poem “The Wasteland” helps define another sort of wilderness, one that has all the trappings of civilization, but which is inhospitable to the human soul. In Eliot’s urban wilderness, that “Unreal City, / Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,” the arc of vision is short, and breathing shallow: “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.” The external landscape mirrors the human inner landscape in Eliot’s modernist imagination, a phenomenon he called “objective correlative.” With the twentieth century, therefore, came the possibility of defining wilderness as any space or state of being characterized by loneliness and threatened survival, menaced by the chaos of too much, or the barrenness of too little. In other words, any place or state of mind can be a wilderness.
There are two kinds of wildernesses in “Lost Sister.” The obvious one, in part two, is an urban wilderness, portrayed as a jungle with its strangling vines, giant snakes, and ceaseless, predatorial night life. The immigrant is suffocated by loneliness in this place, despite the artifacts of “once belonging” which do little to assuage her displacement and disillusion, her disease of not belonging. Nor are America’s many Chinatowns places in which the immigrant can truly be at home, which suggests another poem in Picture Bride. They are look-alike wildernesses of “sleazy movie houses / & oily joints,” where “Grandmother is gambling” with Mah-Jong tiles and “bamboo chopstick tenements / pile up like noodles.”
Notice that Song calls the American scene “another wilderness” in part two, thus asking the reader to look back in part one at the China endured by the foot-bound daughter as “wilderness,” also. This other wilderness in the poem is primarily an inner one. Despite the familiar clucking of farmyard hens, the poem implies that this woman is trapped in a landscape barren of choice and crippling in its expectations and assumptions. She is therefore alienated from herself and lost to a way of being that moving freely might reveal and nourish. On the other hand, the wilderness can also be a place of testing and transformation. Stripped of comfort—physical, psychological, or otherwise— the wilderness survivor must bring all his or her resources and strengths to bear. Both sisters have the opportunity to prove their inner strength against their particular wastelands and resident demons.
“Lost Sister” is a two-part poem of five stanzas. The two stanzas of part one describe the “jade” daughters of China who stayed home. Part two tells of the sister, presumably the “lost” one, who leaves for America. The final stanza judges them both to be “footless.” “Lost Sister” is written in free verse, a poetic form that may appear to be without form, especially when compared to the metrical, rhymed patterns of formal verse patterns such as the sonnet. Instead of meter, free verse relies on the rhythms of word-sound combinations in ordinary speech. Instead of end-rhyme, it relies on patterns of images and metaphors throughout the poem as well as upon varieties of “internal” rhyme, within and among words in the line. You can find the internal rhyme devices of alliteration and assonance, for example, in the first stanza. Alliteration is the repetition of beginning consonants and can be heard in the repeated “m” sounds in line 7: “could make men move mountains.” Assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, occurs in the short and long “i” sounds in “glistening like slices of winter melon.” One can almost see and feel the image by listening to the sounds.
Line-length is variable, not prescribed, in free verse; therefore, the poet can break a line according to the sound and emphasis needed. This poem gives great importance, for example, to “Jade” by placing it on a line by itself in the first stanza of the poem; likewise, “footless” in the last stanza. The carefully constructed line breaks in “Lost Sister” frequently lead to a surprising reversal or expansion of meaning from one line to the next. For example, one might expect “But they traveled far” (line 21) to be followed by a distant place. But “In surviving” is no place at all, at least not externally. In giving this line the same grammatical form as other similar lines—“In China,” “In America”— the reader is asked to think of “surviving” as a psychological space where one might carry on another sort of journey. Through this attention to the line, the poem challenges traditional meanings and ordinary expectations. The repetition of parallel phrases such as “In China,” “In America,” and then “in another wilderness” also helps unify the different parts of the poem and establishes the comparisons and contrasts essential to its themes.
According to Howard Levy in his Chinese Foot-binding, the custom lamented in “Lost Sister” probably began with palace dancers in the late-tenth century, during the waning years of the T’ang dynasty. The ruler Li Yu is said to have constructed a six-foot-high lotus out of gold and ordered his favorite concubines to bind their feet into the shape of a “moon sickle” and dance upon its petals. Obviously, the bindings were not severe enough at first to hamper dancing. The tiny, graceful feet of the dancers pleased the men and were admired by the women. The practice caught on, and more and more upper-class women were required to bind their feet, not necessarily for dancing, but as a criterion of beauty and symbol of their class status.
The morally repressive Sung dynasty enthusiastically took foot binding another step further in the eleventh century. According to Levy, a proverb of the time best expresses it: “Why must the foot be bound? To prevent barbarous running around!” The more liberal marriage laws and sexual mores of the T’ang dynasty had yielded to the Sung’s stringent moral codes for women, as well as a serious curbing of their intellectual freedom, viewing the education of women as a “disadvantage.” This government took the “a woman’s place is in the home” philosophy to a painful extreme, requiring that women bind their feet so excessively that every step required the support of a cane or another person. Thus, not only were women conveniently rendered incapable of infidelity, but also of hard work. Foot binding in its earliest centuries of practice remained associated with the aristocracy. Those with “golden lotus” feet could literally do nothing but lead a life of leisure and the sedentary arts. To use Song’s words in a different context, the pleasures of physical labor were “stolen from them at birth.”
The practice of foot binding spread during the Mongol rule of the twelfth century as well as in Yuan and Ming dynasties through the sixteenth century. Society considered women with unbound feet ugly and unfit for marriage. By this time, not only the aesthetic but the erotic merits of the custom were firmly established. Poetry and songs of those centuries glorified the tiny foot as a sexual object par excellence, despite its historical associations with moral repression. Chinese men reported that women swayed with an alluring gait on their “golden lotuses,” and Chinese prostitutes attracted their customers with that “mincing step” that is now a cliche for promiscuous body language. The shoe itself was considered a work of art, and lovers devised erotic rituals of drinking from the shoe, and caressing and bathing the tiny foot.
Over the centuries, foot binding spread beyond the gentility and was adopted throughout China by women in most provinces and classes. Only the poorest laboring women remained “duck-footed.” After conquering China in the seventeenth century, the Manchus attempted to abolish the practice by official decree and carried out serious punishments for disobedience. But foot binding cannot be considered distinct from the broader social patterns and ideologies that repress women to this degree. Levy suggests that the Manchus failed to eradicate the custom because they failed to liberate women more comprehensively.
The nearly thousand-year-old practice of foot binding continued into the earliest parts of the twentieth century, when it was abolished, slowly and erratically, by a combination of political and
Compare & Contrast
- 1850: The first national women’s rights convention, in Worcester, Massachusetts, was attended by delegates from nine states.
1874: The following was printed in a San Francisco real estate circular: “All comparisons between Irish and German immigration and that of the Chinese are unjust. The former make their homes here, buy farms and homesteads, are of the same general race, are buried here after death, and take an interest and aid in all things pertaining to the best interest of the country. The Chinese come for a season only; and, while they give their labor, they do not expend the proceeds of such labor in the country. They do not come to settle or make homes, and not one in fifty of them is married. Their women are all suffering slaves and prostitutes, for which possession, murderous feuds and high-handed cruelty are constantly occurring. To compare the Chinese with even the lowest white laborers is, therefore, absurd.”
1875: The Page Law was passed to prohibit the entry of Chinese prostitutes into the United States, but was enforced so broadly that it also excluded Chinese wives.
1908: Through the “Gentleman’s Agreement” with Japan, 60,000 women immigrated to the United States as “picture brides.”
1920: Women’s suffrage is ratified in the United States via the 19th amendment. Women represent 46 percent of the Japanese population in Hawaii and 35 percent in California.
1966: The National Organization for Women (NOW) is founded in the United States on behalf of the movement to gain equal social, political, and economic rights for women.
1997: Thirty-six hundred children from China were adopted by families in the United States Ninety-five percent of them were girls.
Today: Of China’s 320 million families (1.2 billion population), only twenty percent have one child, despite the Beijing’s official one-child-per-family planning policy instituted in the late 1970s. Western human rights groups say that the one-child policy has led to forced abortions and killings of baby girls by parents hoping for a son to carry the family line.
Today: Amnesty International reports that the Chinese government “executed at least ten people in Beijing in its continuing crackdown to ensure ‘public order’ during the 4th United Nations Conference on Women.”
social pressures both internal and external to China. Women in the large cities of Shanghai and Peking “let their feet out” long before those in rural villages who, well into the 1930s, resisted the “natural foot movement” in all its aesthetic, social, and political implications.
Meanwhile, nearly a century before foot binding began to wane, Chinese men were migrating to the West as laborers in the newly settled United States. They were virtually a “colony of bachelors,” as Ronald Takaki puts it in A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Of the 12,000 Chinese in California in 1852, only seven were women, and that number grew to only five percent of the nearly 90,000 Chinese on the United States’ mainland by 1900. In light of the gender roles in China, unchanged for hundreds of years, it is not hard to understand these statistics. Bound feet rendered the women of upper ranks incapable of making any physically demanding journey, and unbound peasant women were needed at home to perform work required by an agricultural economy. More than half of the Chinese women living in the United States in late 1860s were prostitutes, many of them having been sold as young girls by their fathers.
From the time they arrived on United States soil, the Chinese suffered virulent racial prejudice. Takaki points out that although the Chinese population in the United States “constituted a mere .002 percent,” in 1880, President Rutherford Hayes resisted the “pernicious invasion” of yet another “weaker race,” and grouped them along with “Negroes and Indians” as a national problem. Song’s poem reflects this sense of invasion, albeit from another point of view, in the image of the Chinese as swarming locusts that “inundate another shore.” The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882, closed all doors to Chinese immigration for the next twenty years and denied citizenship to those already living in the United States. Any “foreign” presence during those years was felt as a threat to a country suffering its first serious crises of unemployment, class conflicts, strikes, and riots. Prejudice dies hard, and even though part two of the poem likely “takes place” after the Exclusion Act was repealed, this Chinese daughter still experiences America as inhospitable and even threatening.
For a young woman to break out of her narrowly circumscribed roles and leave China would indeed be an act of great “rebellion” during the years in which foot binding was still a powerful cultural force and symbol. Thus, we can better understand the judgment in the last line of “Lost Sister” if we understand that the poem’s speaker is probably a member of Song’s maternal generation who see “rebellion” where Song’s own contemporary sisters might see “liberation.”
In his preface to The Open Boat, Poems from Asian America, editor Garrett Hongo cites the Yale Younger Poet’s awarded to Picture Bride as good evidence that “there has been empowerment and a demonstrable rise in the recognition of works by Asian American poets,” in part because of “the American voice that is great within us.” Richard Hugo praised Song’s ability to both express and transcend the specifics of her Asian-American background, a virtue that likely granted her inclusion in the popular Norton and Heath anthologies of American literature. Hugo called “Lost Sister,” in particular, a tribute to one who paid an enormous “psychic price” for her independence, even though “the rebellion failed.” Hugo’s reading implies that such a tribute could be paid to anyone who, regardless of culture or gender, works to put “an ocean in between” themselves and their cultural traps, thereby creating “‘an unremitting space’ others can cross or fill.”
Despite the early promises of a wider critical appraisal, however, most readings of Song’s work seem to be confined to publications of multicultural, or specifically Asian-American interest. In her chapter on Korean-American literature in King-Kok Cheung’s An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, Elaine Kim noted Song’s desire to be seen as foremost a poet “who happens to be Asian American” and recalled an interview in which Song said she doesn’t want to be perceived as “leaning too heavily on the Asian-American theme,” because “I write about other things, too.” Those “other things”—childhood, motherhood, suburban life—emerge in her later volumes, where the ordinary details of contemporary life in Hawaii find a lyrical voice.
Kim herself leaned heavily on the images of “almost suffocating restriction” in Picture Bride in evaluating Cathy Song’s place as an artist in America. The foot-binding image in “Lost Sister” is one of those powerful indications, in Kim’s mind, that Song’s Asian-American ancestry is central to her poetry, but that “she seems to feel restricted by them as an artist.” Kim suggested that “to become an artist,” Song, like the lost sister, “must leave home.” Other critics perceive that Song has “left home” in important ways. Stephen Sumida noted that where other contemporary poets from Hawaii have used a local pidgin language for the voice in dramatic monologue, “Cathy Song ... writing in so-called standard English, may be said to demonstrate that poetic traditions of Hawai’i are by no means confined to Hawai’i Creole.”
Sean Robisch teaches composition and literature at Purdue University and holds a Ph.D. in American literature. In the following essay, Robisch explores the influence of place, or physical environment, in “Lost Sister.”
The poet, maybe more so than any other kind of writer, must struggle with how to approach an image, receive it, and employ it with neither too much sentimentality nor too much bitterness. This is one of the things that makes good poetry difficult
What Do I Read Next?
- Maxine Hong Kingston’s acclaimed 1976 novel, The Woman Warrior, Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, has introduced an entire generation to the struggles of Chinese-American women to adapt to a culture of “ghosts,” the term for anyone not Chinese. Through her Chinese mother’s “talk-stories” and her own experience, a young girl growing up in California must sort through the conflicting expectations and perceptions of Asian women.
- Two volumes of poetry by Cathy Song have followed Picture Bride. While neither Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), nor School Figures (1994) has received the same critical acclaim as her first book, they have helped establish Song as an artist capable of much more, says reviewer Pat Monaghan, than “second-person recitations of family history.” These poems are concerned with the inner life of the poet and her family, Monaghan notes, a “complex terrain” Song explores “with delicate exactitude.”
- In 1991, along with Juliet S. Kono, Cathy Song edited Sister Stew, Bamboo Ridge Press’s anthology of fiction and poetry by Hawaiian women, including Morgan Blair (Fay Kick-nosway), Marie Hara, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka. Bamboo Ridge, with whom Song has close association, continues to nurture and publish the work of Hawaiian writers. New titles such as Growing Up Local and a calendar of events sponsored by the Press can be found on the World Wide Web at www.bambooridge.com.
- Dorothy Blair Shimer has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of women from China and Japan with her collection of stories and memoirs that span a thousand years, from the T’ang dynasty in China and the Heian period in Japan to the present. Rice Bowl Women, a 1982 anthology of writings by and about Chinese and Japanese women, reflects “the changing status and ongoing struggle” of the Asian women to whom Song gives voice in her poems.
- Tayo, the main character of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, is a kind of “lost brother” at the beginning of Silko’s novel, first published in 1977. The young Laguna Indian has returned from his nightmarish service in World War II alienated from himself and his tribal heritage. Like “Lost Sister,” this is a story in part about the profound struggles both to make peace with tradition and bring it creatively into a new time and place.
- Judy Yung uses the foot-binding theme to explore the changing status of Chinese women in San Francisco, the nexus of Chinese immigration, from the years of the Exclusion Act, which started in 1882, through World War II. In addition to factual information, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (1995) traces the history of these women through case studies and oral histories. A valuable supplement to this reading would be Yung’s 1986 Chinese Women of America: A Pictorial History.
- Those intrigued by medieval court life in the Far East will want to look at The Tale of Genji, the classic Japanese “novel” by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. This long romance, completed in the 1020s, weaves the textures of Heian court life into stories of the adventures and loves of the idealized nobleman “Genji.” It was during this same period of time that the practice of foot binding began among the aristocracy in China.
to write. The poet also must balance experiences of the real and tangible world with that of imagination. Therefore, where the image resides, its place and the place where the poet lives and works, will inevitably influence her perception of it. If a poet lives in the mountains, the mountains will rise up in the work; if she lives in a forest, chances are that there will be some arboreal presence, even if it isn’t always the direct mention of trees, in a book of her poems. The poet’s residence is also the residence of the images she experiences and uses in her language. Finally, perhaps ultimately, the issue of the poet’s ethnicity—that matter we often too easily think of in terms of skin color, language, or culture—will be settled to some degree by the way she collects the images of her place.
Cathy Song is a resident of Hawaii. She grew up there, learning the stories of her Korean grandparents and of the Chinese members of her family. These stories were set as much in Hawaii as in Korea. She drew upon many of these tales in her first collection of poetry, Picture Bride, which won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1983. Many second-and third-generation artists have been faced with recognition as multiracial, or multi-ethnic, while living all of their lives in the United States. This presents those writers with the problems of establishing their own identities and deciding to what degree they wish to accept their ethnic backgrounds as important to their work as artists. Cathy Song has faced these problems both in her writing and in her public discussions.
Another poet from Hawaii, Garrett Hongo, has described a kind of separation between those who favor the personal experience within the American venue and those who favor writing the more polemical (that is, the more confrontational and often political), piece. Cathy Song sees herself as landing firmly in the first camp. In interviews, she has stated that she would rather be thought of as a poet who “happens to be Asian-American” than as an Asian-American or Hawaiian poet. This echoes the struggle of many other writers— Kim Ronyoung, Peter Hyun, and Margaret Pai, among others—to balance writing the biographies of their elders with the establishment of their own voices and between the vivid descriptions of their places and the drive to have their work accepted beyond the borders of those places.
Song’s resistance to being labelled is understandable. Still, it is difficult to deny the obvious uses of names as well as the references jade and Mah-Jong, certain foods, the history of the Hawaiian cane plantations, picture brides, and immigration. Perhaps, in order to honor both Song’s (and many other multiethnic poets’) desire to be acknowledged as a poet, even while we recognize the importance of the Korean, Chinese, and Hawaiian influences on her work, we might consider her poems in terms of how their specifically regional concerns actually contain more general truths that are applicable to those of us who are not from Hawaii or Korea. That way, the poem is given credit for all the things it does with the images that the poet has chosen and gathered, like shells on a beach or stones from a river. The poet may then be simultaneously a practitioner of the word and a subject of the stuff that determines her ethnicity. In other words, the role of poet and the role of ethnic, cultural, and political being do not have to be treated separately. This is a sound platform from which to read the work of Cathy Song.
“Lost Sister” gives us a great opportunity to apply the idea that a poet’s place is vital to her role as poet. Picture Bride is divided into five sections, with each named for a flower. Its structure is inspired by the work of Georgia O’Keefe and the names of her paintings. The original title of the book was to be “From the White Place,” a reference to a location in New Mexico, near Ghost Ranch, where O’Keefe lived and worked for many years. Song visited this place and was inspired both by what O’Keefe had done with it and by the land itself. In many ways it is a strict contrast to Hawaii—dry and carved with mesas and canyons, as opposed to water-locked and verdant—and it must have been inspiring to Song. But the title of her book was changed to emphasize the subject matter most pervasive in the collection, particularly her grandmother’s immigration to the United States during the picture-bride era, when hundreds of Asian women were “sent for” by men working in America who had only seen them in photographs. Whether or not this was to “capitalize” on Song’s ethnicity as a way of selling the book, as some have posited, it is the more appropriate title. “From the White Place” is not nearly as strong of a poem as “Lost Sister” or other poems that demonstrate how much more familiar Song is with the material of Hawaii and the material of her grandparents’ stories than with the New Mexican desert.
Picture Bride is packed with blue images. John Unterecker, one of Song’s mentors while she was a young poet, commented that hers were among the “bluest” poems he had read. Added to the many other images of Hawaii, this blueness appears as an obvious, and valuable, characteristic of island poetry—of the sensibilities and images that come from the poet being closely surrounded at all times by the ocean.
Other themes pervade the book, the stronger ones all appearing in “Lost Sister.” Richard Hugo, who selected the book for the Yale Younger Poets
“[Song’s] choices of language are often quiet and tightly focused, like fine beams of light on single images.”
award, recognized “leaving and escaping” as common themes in the poems, and in “Lost Sister” we have a poem of the daughter/sister who leaves her family, crosses the ocean, and finds that her escape has not even left any footprints. Several critics have remarked on the “quietude” of the poetry, what Lorrie Goldensohn called “that exquisite, clarifying precision we recognize as Asian in feeling.” That last comment might give the most weight to Song’s argument against being labelled for her ethnicity before her poetry, because Goldensohn risks stereotyping “Asian” work. However, Song’s poems, “Lost Sister” perhaps most obviously among them, do focus intensely on the experience of someone Asian—in this case Chinese—experiencing a change in culture. Her choices of language are often quiet and tightly focused, like fine beams of light on single images. This need not be particularly Asian; it is simply a trait of Song’s work, that, as she might say, “happens to” focus on Asian-American experience.
This brings us back to the important influence of place on “Lost Sister” as a way of reading it to include the matters of ethnicity, poetic sensibility, the collection and use of image, and narrative without labelling the poem too narrowly as only regional. Hugo’s use of the word “escape” might be changed to “mobility,” a word several critics have used to talk about “Lost Sister.” In the poem, China is cast as a place where “the daughters never left home” and where their freedom of movement was “stolen from them at birth.” The metaphor of “shoes the size of teacups” and later of the mother as “footless” both invoke the ancient practice of foot binding, through which a woman’s feet were kept small by tightly wrapping them for several years, beginning in infancy. The metaphor is beautifully wrought in Song’s poem, as the small, quiet image is also a powerfully oppressive one. The limited mobility of the Chinese mother is contrasted with the daughter’s freedom when she reaches America, where “There are many roads / and women can stride along with men.” The word “stride,” as well as the image to which it is attached, implies a liberty of movement. But just as the contrast looks simple and the United States seems to be held above China by the young “sister,” a long stanza follows that complicates the poem. It is earlier foreshadowed by the sister’s relinquishment of her name, and it acts as a kind of rebuke.
Many of us have heard the adages, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” and “be careful what you wish for, for you may surely get it.” The sister, now in “another wilderness,” clings to her few provisions that remind her of home and realizes that American liberty does not keep her from being lonely or oppressed. The landlords where she lives let themselves into her life, metaphorically and literally. The cities are “nightless,” and the urbanity is threatening, as found in the image of a defective pipe in the kitchen as a snake. The images of footprint and ocean come together at the end of the poem to remind the young, immigrant sister that one cannot leave footprints on water and that the ocean, which diluted her “jade green,” separates her from a place she now needs to maintain her identity. She may now only imagine China.
The poem’s title is interesting in that the sister is not given sisterhood to anyone in particular. The first stanza implies that she is a peasant, possibly a first daughter named Jade (who changes her name when she comes to America), and has other sisters she has left behind. But this is all implication, however strong. One critic has speculated that the sister of the poem is herself a picture bride, but there is no evidence in the poem to support this conclusion. Sisterhood may be a powerful metaphoric device, as it is used for nuns, female members of organizations, and women of the same race. “There is a sister” the poet writes in section two, but there is no other sister or brother mentioned. The Lost Sister may be as much as sibling of her place as sister to the family that disappears by the beginning of the second stanza in section one. She is caught between allegiance to them and allegiance to her independence. She seeks out sisterhood, now that she has, paradoxically, both lost her name and come into her own. Maybe this is sisterhood to China, maybe to her own mother, but in any case it is a lost sisterhood. So the title of the poem implies more than one layer of meaning, as titles of poems often do.
In some ways, Song addresses her own resistance to being strictly an Asian-American poet in “Lost Sister.” Although we cannot reduce the work of an artist to mere biography, the issue of identity and its roots in place and ethnicity is at hand throughout the poem and the book in which it appears: the blue, the jade, the Mah-Jong tiles, and the fireworks. These may be a “jade link handcuffed to her wrist,” but Cathy Song needs them. They supply those who are not Asian-American, Hawaiian, or female with information about those experiences and about the experiences (even the fictitious ones of a character in a poem) that will teach us to value what we learn from our own freedoms and rebellions and from the consequences of both.
Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Chris Semansky teaches writing and literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, and is a frequent contributor of poems and essays to literary journals. In the following essay, Semansky focuses on the speaker of “Lost Sister” and her existence between two cultures.
In cultural studies, the phenomenon where cultures with asymmetrical power relations meet and clash is called the “contact zone.” In such spaces— which can be conceptual as well as physical—people’s very sense of self-identity is altered, sometimes to such an extent that an individual caught between these cultures is emotionally and psychologically lost to herself. In her poem “Lost Sister,” Cathy Song, the American-born daughter of a Korean father and a Chinese mother, examines the psychological space of the contact zone to examine her dilemma of being lost between two different cultures.
In the first half of the two-part poem, the speaker imagines the historical circumstances of first daughters in rural China. Song’s comparison of first daughters to jade is significant once we understand its importance to Chinese culture, where the stone symbolizes nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality. For millennia, jade has been an intimate part of the lives of Chinese of all ranks and classes, and it is viewed as the most valuable of all precious stones. The speaker underscores the stone’s significance to an agricultural community and its reputation as an object that protects people from misfortune and brings good luck when she says that it could “moisten the dry season” and “make men move mountains.” By implication, the speaker suggests that Chinese daughters too had this power. More likely, and given what else she says about how the daughters were treated, she is being ironic. We should remember, however, that this is the speaker’s representation of Chinese daughters as she imagines them to have been. The speaker’s take on Chinese history has as much to do with her own need to see the past in a particular way as it does with any conventional history of the country.
The Chinese have a saying that goes, “If jade is not properly cut, it cannot be made into a useful utensil.” This is also true, the speaker suggests, for Chinese women. Just as shaping or cutting jade is important in producing useful articles, so too is shaping the desires and lives of Chinese daughters important in producing dutiful women. Using the Chinese practice of foot binding as a metaphor for discipline, Song emphasizes the submission that daughters endured:
They never left home.
To move freely was a luxury
stolen from them at birth.
Instead, they gathered patience,
learning to walk in shoes
the size of teacups,
“Shoes the size of teacups” refers to the tiny shoes many Chinese women wore a thousand years ago, when the curious custom of breaking and binding the feet into the shape of a pointed lotus bud began. Until the early twentieth century when foot binding was outlawed, generations of women and girls tottered through life on three-to four-inch “lotus” feet encased in exquisitely embroidered, excruciatingly tiny “lotus” shoes.
In an article about the practice, Marie Vento explains that “In a society with a cult of female chastity, one primary purpose of foot binding was to limit mobility, radically modifying the means by which females were permitted to become a part of the world at large. Painfully and forcibly reducing a little girl’s foot at the precise point in her life when she was expected to begin understanding the Confucian discipline of maintaining a ‘mindful body’ reinforced her acceptance of the practice.” This was a discipline the daughters grew up with, then, one which became inseparable from how they came to think of themselves.
Song effectively establishes an image of what her ancestor might have been like in the first section of the poem in order to contrast it with a contemporary
“Though aware of the oppressive treatment of women in her country of birth and the lack of freedom and opportunity there, the speaker nonetheless finds that her cultural heritage is one source of emotional stability....”
image of herself in the second half of the poem.
There is a sister
across the ocean,
who relinquished her name,
diluting jade green
with the blue of the Pacific.
Opportunities are available in the United States where, the speaker tells us, “there are many roads / and women can stride along with men.” But freedom brings with it peril. America holds promise but also uncertainty, and the exotic images used in the second part of the poem underline the fear that this uncertainty begets. Assimilating oneself into a foreign culture “can strangulate like jungle vines.” Though the contemporary daughter takes with her markers of her previous life—“fermented roots, Mah-Jong tiles and firecrackers”—they are not enough to fashion a new life in an unfamiliar and frequently hostile environment where “dough-faced landlords / slip in and out of your keyholes.” This hostility presents itself most explicitly in the image of the giant snake that “rattles above, / spewing black clouds into your kitchen.” This evil snake, in fact, signifies the flip side of the Chinese dragon, which in Chinese culture is the personification of the demiurge, the first cause of the world. In the East the power of the dragon is mysterious and suggests the resolution of opposites. In ritual celebrations the dragon dance enables supplicants to receive heaven’s blessing in the form of rain; indeed, the dragon itself engenders both rain and thunder, which are themselves inseparable. Like jade itself, which was diluted in crossing the Pacific, so too has the Dragon been diluted in its crossing. In the West it is merely a “giant snake,” suggesting the mythical Judeo-Christian embodiment of evil, appropriately enough. By locating it in the kitchen, where it wreaks havoc, the speaker underlines the diminished nature of the great dragon in the West. The “lost sister,” who is neither fully Eastern nor fully Western, can no longer think of the Chinese dragon as the mythic creator of the universe, but instead focuses merely on its demonic associations, attributing her troubles assimilating to a new culture to this force.
The lines detailing the lost sister’s uncomprehending position in the West mark the first time that the second person “you” is used in the poem. Poets frequently use the second person to refer to an image of themselves in the poem. In this case, we can infer that Cathy Song has set up an alter ego of herself that her speaker is in dialogue with; it is an alter ego, however, that simultaneously represents all Chinese daughters who have emigrated to the United States.
It is this representative figure that the speaker addresses in the final stanza (or, conversely, it is the alter ego that addresses the speaker). Though aware of the oppressive treatment of women in her country of birth and the lack of freedom and opportunity there, the speaker nonetheless finds that her cultural heritage is one source of emotional stability, “your one fragile identification.” Song once again evokes the image of foot binding to suggest the historical cultural invisibility of women (“You remember your mother / who walked for centuries, / footless”) that is also her heritage. But unlike her mother, the speaker’s own invisibility also stems from her desire to leave her country of birth. The speaker literally leaves no footprints because she has traveled across the Pacific Ocean and figuratively leaves no footprints because of her need to distance herself from the past. This poetic move, to imaginatively reconstruct the lost or erased history of some ancestor in order to reconstruct her own identity, is a typical strategy in Song’s poems, according to critic Masami Usui, and is one used by other Asian-American writers as well.
The “Lost Sister” in this poem is the speaker, who is lost between the old world and the new. Regardless of her desire to be free of her past and to forge a new identity she finds that she cannot; China is “a jade link / handcuffed to ... [her] wrist.” This image echoes the image of foot binding earlier in the poem and reminds us that our histories act as much to constrain us as any physical device. The “lost sister” leaves no footprints because she has not been able to embrace any single identity. She compares “the unremitting space of ... [her] rebellion” to an ocean, emphasizing not only that she is emotionally and culturally lost but also that she has lost much. As Richard Hugo put it in his foreword to Picture Bride, “The psychic price of her rebellion was great.”
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Goldensohn, Lorrie, “Flights Home,” Poetry, April 1984, pp. 40–47.
Hongo, Garrett, ed., The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1993.
Kim, Elaine H., “Korean American Literature,” in An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by King-Kok Cheung, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 172–73.
Lee, Kyhan, “Korean-American Literature: The Next Generation,” Korean Journal, Spring 1994, pp. 20–35.
Levy, Howard S., Chinese Footbinding: The History of a Curious Erotic Custom, New York: Walton Rawls, 1966.
Schultz, Susan M, “Cathy Song,” Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 169, American Poets since World War II, 5th series, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 267–74.
——, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light, New York: Norton, 1988.
——, School Figures, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.
Sumida, Stephen, “Asian/Pacific American Literature” in An Interethnic Companion to Asian-American Literature, edited by King-Kok Cheung, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 280–81.
Takaki, Ronald, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
Usui, Masami, “Women Disclosed: Cathy Song’s Poetry and Kitagawa Ukiyoe,” in Studies in Culture and the Humanities, 1995, pp. 1–19.
Vento, Marie, “One Thousand Years of Chinese Footbinding: Its Origins, Popularity and Demise,” March 7, 1998, http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/vento.html (accessed November 10, 1998).
Hongo, Garrett, introduction to The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1993, pp. xvii-xlii.
Besides the fact that Hawaiian-born Hongo has included several of Cathy Song’s poems in this important anthology, his introduction vibrantly tells the story of the Asian-American writers’ struggling emergence out of the caricatures of “bit players, extras with buck teeth and pigtails” and into a literature of identity. At times, Hongo’s writing reads almost like an incantation, even while it chronicles the growing awareness that “slowly, an alternative truth was being made available to us,” to writers and artists of Asian descent. Within the discussion, Hongo annotates a number of journals, books, and anthologies that would be invaluable to anyone interested in the evolution of contemporary Asian-American literature.
Kim, Elaine H., Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.
Now called a “classic” in its field, this book ambitiously and successfully attempts to survey the Asian-American “experience” as revealed in the writings (in English) of Americans of Asian descent, from the late-nineteenth century to the early 1980s. The book missed by one short year the publication of Cathy Song’s first book, and the contribution it would have made to Kim’s important survey and discussion.
Lu, Tonglin, ed., Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature and Society, New York: State University of New York Press, 1993.
These essays, compiled from a symposium on gender and sexuality, provide a broad-ranging conversation on the historical, political, and cultural forces shaping women’s lives and voices in China. Among other things, it helps us understand the tensions that give dimension to the portraits of women in “Lost Sister.”
"Lost Sister." Poetry for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/lost-sister
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