Cathy Song’s Picture Bride and Transpacific Immigration

  • onOctober 30, 2014
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byCathy Song

A person’s life story is not automatically marked in history; it gains its cultural and historical weight when someone re-makes the private story in forms of writing. Without writing, everything is gone, forgotten. It is quite tempting to say that only the person who experienced a certain event has the official right to inscribe it. But imagination and empathy make it possible for another to write about a certain event, through fragments of memory, even after it has been forgotten and erased. A literary form born in the process of a courageous alternative can take the role of cultural and historical agency. Cathy Song is one of the poets who took agency, quite successfully, by marking the immigration stories of her Korean grandparents through poetry.

According to one interview, Song had chosen the title of her first book of poems as “From the White Place,” at first, highlighting her artistic kinship with the painter garamond-premier-pro O’Keeffe. The editor, however, strongly recommended changing the title to “Picture Bride,” the most appealing point for American readers. And the editor’s expectation was indeed correct. Song’s first book became a landmark of Korean American poetry.

Song has long been considered as a poet who represents the passive beauty of East Asian culture and recalls tribal memory. Born in Hawaii of Korean and Chinese descent, Song attended the University of Hawaii and Wellesley College. In 1981 she received an MFA in creative writing from Boston University. Her first poetry collection, Picture Bride (1983), which won the Yale Younger Poets Award and a National Book Critics Circle award nomination, is frequently regarded as the work of personalizing the process of female assimilation into American society. Poems such as “Picture Bride” and “Lost Sister” were compiled in various anthologies and widely taught in English literature classes in the U.S. Critics agree that her poetry conveys the delicate, colorful voice of a third-generation Asian American with no glimpse of flirtatious, linguistic awkwardness of the first- or second-generation of Korean immigrants.

Picture Bride, a rich text for the study of relationships between memory, culture, and writing, needs to be reinterpreted as a text that articulates the subversive power of gazing. Song’s poetic blends of deceptively quiet self-reflection and the inner force of a female subject continuously invite readers to rethink the nature of seeing and drawing. On the front cover, you encounter a woman wearing a white hanbok in the oval looking glass beneath the title. Then a few pages in, you see the title “Picture Bride” elegantly inscribed in the same oval mirror. The final line of the last poem of the collection reads “someone very quiet once lived here.” The very act of facing the glass, of gazing at oneself is a rather quiet act. The entire book is arranged in five sections, each named after a flower painting by garamond-premier-pro O’Keeffe. In this way, Song cautiously shares with her readers her appreciation of art and history, and her keen sensitivity to the act of gazing. In its form, Picture Bride is a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony, on transpacific migration, on memory and remembrance, on seeing and gazing.

In the title poem, Song traces the route of her Korean grandmother who arrived in Hawaii as a picture bride. There were so few women among the early Korean immigrants to America that in 1910, for example, the Korean male to female ratio was six to one in Hawaii and nine to one on the mainland. In the 10 years before the “Ladies Agreement” ended picture bride immigration from Korea in 1920, over 1,000 Korean women chose the picture bride route. Song’s grandmother was one of them. “Picture Bride” can be read as the vivid spot of the process of searching for her grandmother, restructuring the history of the first generation of Korean immigrants to America.

In “Picture Bride,” Song muses on how the act of gazing forms the space of resistance as a transformative force, beyond proving the process of assimilation of alienated subjects or intercultural identities. At first, she declares that her grandmother was “a year younger than” she, just 23 when she left Korea. And then Song asks, “Did she simply close / the door of her father’s house and walk away.” Following the reminiscent eyes of remembering the long and difficult process of immigration, Song reconstructs the story of her grandmother in between two far-different lands.

The process of restructuring the route from Korea to Hawaii is exactly overlapped in another poem, “Untouched Photograph of Passenger” when the poet recalls the route of her grandfather. In a sense, “Picture Bride” and “Untouched Photograph of Passenger” are twins reorganizing and reinterpreting the process of Koreans’ transpacific immigration. To think of the writing process of the third generation of Korean immigrants, it becomes crucial to read the different faces of immigration, the different sparks of interior spaces. Interestingly, in “Untouched Photograph of Passenger,” a reader might sense that the overall mood is bright and promising. This poem, compared to “Picture Bride” seems to foretell of a better future. The boy’s passage out of the “deteriorating” village in Korea is luminous in a dream of his unborn grandchildren. It becomes crucial not to miss the different aspects of immigration as represented in this collection - the distance between a man and a woman, the different colors of the ocean.

In a sense, Picture Bride is kind of translation—a translation of Koreans’ transpacific immigration, a translation of artistic gazing and engagement. How does the poet enter the white place with words and colors? How does the act of gazing form the frame of reference, if I borrow from Homi Bhabha here, as “the ‘inter’—the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space—that carries the burden of the meaning of culture”? “Memories, Gallery 291” the second part of the poem for garamond-premier-pro O’Keeffe begins with a scene of the typical male gaze and desire; O’Keeffe’s first encounter with the photographer Stieglitz as a nude model.


     He wanted to show her

     the space between a man and a woman,

     the oceans and plains in between:

     she endured the inspections

     of her bones and wrists.

     The first touch surprised her;

     His lens felt like a warm skull.


     She sat waiting, unafraid, … (73)


For Cathy Song, the act of writing poems is to re-draw her tribal memory developing into an artistic recognition through the process of exposure. The process is not easy, sometimes the first breath “would hurt” her. But in her endeavor to find artistic independence, to form a kind of communion with words, energies, and colors, the “white place” is reborn as a creative spot where her artistic vision is formed. This is Song’s vivid interpretation of O’Keeffe’s artistic developments and achievements, and of her own ancestors’ transpacific immigration.

Song’s interesting method of combining colors and words derives from her keen observation on the objectification, (mis)recognition, and commodification of images in prints, paintings, and photos. Song’s strategy is to engage with the resemblance and difference of faces—of the amalgamated memory of transpacific immigration. If I return to the cover of Picture Bride, meshed in blue is the portrait of a family—faces of a man, a woman, and children, and we see the face of one woman framed in white—she is at once a mother, a grandmother, a picture bride, or a youngest daughter.

According to Jacques Aumont, “every representation begins with the desire of imagining a face.” A face is the only part that we can’t see without the help of a mirror. Even the face we see in reflection is different from the face others see. What we call representation is a kind of pendulum swinging from this face to that face, between extremes of resemblance and difference. Exploring the different dreams of transpacific immigrants—of the first generation, the second, the third—of man and woman, Cathy Song faces all the different reflections. Reading Picture Bride is to translate the dialectics and distance between the two titles: “From the White Place” to “Picture Bride” or from “Picture Bride” to “From the White Place.” And now we see the distance is not that far. 



by Chung Eun-Gwi
Professor of English Language and Literature
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies