Picture Bride

How does your family shape your ideas of who you are? Whether or not we would like to admit it, our family plays a significant role in shaping who we are through experiences, history, and relationships. In Cathy Song's (1955-present) debut poetry collection Picture Bride (1983), she explores the themes of feminity and womanhood in relation to family and ancestral history. The poet emphasizes the importance of seemingly subtle yet significant everyday experiences of women. 

Picture Bride Picture Bride

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Table of contents

    Picture Bride: Context and Importance

    Picture Bride is the first poetry book by the Asian American poet Cathy Song. The book won the Yale Younger Poets Award and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

    Cathy Song's poetry is greatly influenced by her heritage, the immigrant experiences of her ancestors, and familial relationships. Song was born and raised in Hawaii by a Chinese American mother and a Korean American father. She grew up in a home with her parents and her grandparents, who were immigrants to Hawaii. Picture Bride is an essential collection of poetry because it hones in on the often unspoken experiences of women. Through personal snapshots of everyday life, Song explores personal and relational ideas of femininity from an Asian American perspective.

    Picture Bride is also heavily influenced by fine art, using images as a source of inspiration for poetry. The book refers to several paintings by the American modernist painter Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986) and woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).

    Definition and History of Picture Brides

    The title of the poetry collection comes from the fact that Cathy Song's grandmother was a 'picture bride.' The term 'picture bride' refers to the practice of early 20th-century immigrant workers in the US, Canada, and Brazil selecting brides from their native countries through an exchange of photographs mediated by a matchmaker. Many workers expected to return to their native countries after their work contracts were up and sought to preserve their own cultures.

    The concept of 'picture brides' is similar to 'mail order brides.' Women were placed in difficult situations, leaving their families and home countries for foreign lands to start a life with men they had never met. The women came for varying reasons—to escape poverty or with the hopes of education, greater freedom, and opportunity for women in the Western world.

    Picture Bride, Old Photographs Box, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The men were often much older than the women and did not match the picture presented to the matchmaker.

    Picture Bride: Overview

    Picture Bride is a collection of 31 short, lyrical poems. The poems are split into five sections, each named after a different Georgia O'Keefe painting of a flower.

    A lyric poem is a short poem with musical qualities that expresses strong emotions. Lyric poems are typically told from the first-person perspective.

    The poems in "Picture Bride" are separated into the five following sections:

    Think about the connotations of these different flowers. What emotions are they associated with?

    I Black Iris

    1. "Picture Bride"
    2. "The Youngest Daughter"
    3. "Easter: Wahiawa, 1959"
    4. "Waialua"
    5. "Blue Lantern"
    6. "Leaving"
    7. "For My Brother"
    8. "Birthmarks

    II Sunflower

    1. "The White Porch"
    2. "Seed"
    3. "Stray Animals"
    4. "Primary Colors"
    5. "Hoolchua"
    6. "Tribe"
    7. "Father and Daughter"

    III Orchids

    1. "Beauty and Sadness"
    2. "Girl Powdering Her Neck"
    3. "Ikebana"
    4. "Blue and White Lines after O'Keeffe"

    IV Red Poppy

    1. "Lost Sister"
    2. "Spaces We Leave Empty"
    3. "A Dream of Small Children"
    4. "The Violin Teacher"
    5. "Untouched Photographer of Passenger"
    6. "China town"
    7. "For A. J.: On Finding She's on Her Boat to China"

    V The White Trumpet Flower

    1. "Hotel Genéve"
    2. "From the White Place"
    3. "A Pale Arrangement of Hands"
    4. "January"
    5. "The Seamstress"

    Picture Bride: Summary

    The book begins with the title poem "Picture Bride," which tells the story of the poet's grandmother—a picture bride sent to Hawaii from Korea to marry the poet's grandfather at the age of 23. Cathy Song writes:

    She was a year younger

    than I,

    twenty-three when she left Korea.

    Did she simply close

    the door of her father's house

    and walk away

    through the tailor shops of Pusan

    to the ward where the boat

    waited to take her to an island

    whose name she had

    only recently learned,

    on whose shore

    a man waited,

    turning her photograph" (1-14)

    Song's poetry reflects her deep desire to understand the experiences of other women in light of her own. She subtly evokes sympathy for another woman's situation, implying the immense difficulty of her grandmother having to leave her family and the only world she knew to marry an unknown man in a foreign county. In "Picture Bride," Song imagines the oddity and awkwardness of a situation that was treated so casually at the time—as picture brides were popular and expectations were for women to find and follow their husbands.

    Cathy Song's poetry explores the complex familial expectations of women. She portrays the relational roles of women as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters with complexity—a delicate balance of underlying tenderness and obligation. In the poem "The Youngest Daughter," Song depicts how the caretaking roles sway back and forth between mother and daughter as both must care for each other through aging, pain, and hardships.

    Picture Bride, Bathroom Bathtub, StudySmarterFig. 2 In "The Youngest Daughter," Song depicts a daughter bathing her aging mother to demonstrate the complexity of caring for someone out of familial obligation.

    Song does not glorify or paint a flowery picture of family life. While it does contain subtle moments of beauty, laughter, and affection, it is also defined by sacrifice and suffering with one another. As the speaker in "The Youngest Daughter" bathes her mother, she says:

    I was almost tender

    when I came to the blue bruises

    that freckle her body,

    places where she has been injecting insulin

    for thirty years. I soaped her slowly,

    she sighed deeply, her eyes closed.

    It seems it has always

    been like this: the two of us

    in this sunless room,

    the splashing of the bathwater." (30-39)

    Cathy Song explores familial relationships in several poems, including "For My Brother" and "Father and Daughter."

    The poet also depicts her family's history and relationships in light of their geographic surroundings. Setting plays a large role in Song's poetry. She depicts how the Hawaiian landscape, vegetation, and plantations greatly shaped the lives of her family members. In the poem "Waialua," she writes about her grandparents' life and home:

    The house was once a laborer's shack...

    Pots were baking,

    others dried on long planks of wood.

    Their egg-and-bean-shaped contours

    flowered into pods and gourds,

    exotic among the lank stalks of cane.

    Creaking in the breeze,

    the wood rose vine sometimes moaned,

    arthritically, raining down seeds

    and pelting the silt-soiled clay,

    mixing into the peculiar musky odor

    I wore beneath my dress." (14-31)

    Waialua is a region in North Shore, O'ahu, Hawaii. It is the setting of many of Song's poems, notably mentioned in "Easter: Wahiawa, 1959" and "Leaving."

    Picture Bride, Hawaii Plantation Waialua, StudySmarterFig. 3 Cathy Song's grandfather worked on plantations in Waialua, Hawaii.

    In Song's poetry, nature is often used to present female sensuality and desire. The poem "The White Porch" depicts the speaker's transition from childhood to womanhood. While her mother grabs her braided hair and grounds her in chores and everyday activities, she realizes she is growing up as she writes:

    But there is this slow arousal.

    The small buttons

    of my cotton blouse

    are pulling away from my body.

    I feel the strain of threads,

    the swollen magnolias

    heavy as a flock of birds

    in the tree." (22-29)

    Cathy Song presents female sexuality from a female perspective but also interprets how it is perceived from a male perspective, influenced by culture and society. In the poems "Beauty and Sadness" and "Girl Powdering Her Neck," Song reflects on the ideals of pristine, perfect Japanese beauty, writing about paintings of geishas made by the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro.

    "Beauty and Sadness" is dedicated to the artist who depicted women as "beautiful iridescent insects, / creatures from a floating world" (25 26). Song does not write about these prints simply to present the male gaze, but rather to understand and present the complex emotions and pressures women face amidst expectations of perfect beauty.

    Picture Bride, Utamaro Geisha, StudySmarterFig. 4 Kitagawa Utamaro's prints often depict Geishas, traditional Japanese entertainers that reflect Asian standards of beauty, particularly for their very white complexion.

    Song explores the complexity of cultural expectations, as they pressure women to act and look a certain way, but they also unite people to their history and heritage. In the poem "Ikebana," the poet writes ironically about the unrealistic expectations for Asian women. The poem presents itself as a list of instructions for feminine perfections:

    To prepare the body,

    aim for the translucent perfection

    you find in the sliced shavings

    of a pickled turnip.

    In order for this to happen,

    you must avoid the sun,

    protect the face

    under a paper parasol

    until it is bruised white

    like the skin of lilies." (1-10)

    In the poems "Lost Sister" and "Spaces We Leave Empty," Song focuses on the complexity of objecting to Asian standards for perfect, docile, patient, and graceful women while desiring a connection to one's ancestral homeland and culture. "Lost Sister" depicts an Asian woman who lives in America where "women can stride along with men" (36), yet she cannot shake a deep longing for connection with where she came from:

    You find you need China:

    your one fragile identification,

    a jade link

    handcuffed to your wrist." (53-56)

    Picture Bride is ultimately a poetry book about this search for connection—connection to one's ancestors, culture, family, and femininity.

    Picture Bride: Analysis of Literary Devices

    Throughout Picture Bride, Cathy Song uses the imagery and symbolism of nature to paint human emotions and explore ideas of femininity.

    Imagery is descriptive language that appeals to the senses.

    Symbolism is a person, place, thing, word, or idea that signifies a meaning beyond its literal meaning.

    In the poem "Girl Powdering Her Neck," based on a painting by Kitagawa Utamaro, Song imagines the geisha girl doing her makeup and painting her face. The poet writes:

    She dips a corner of her sleeve

    like a brush into water

    to wipe the mirror;

    she is about to paint herself.

    The eyes narrow

    in a moment of self-scrutiny.

    The mouth parts

    as if desiring to disturb

    the placid plum face;

    break the symmetry of silence.

    But the berry-stained lips,

    stenciled into the mask of beauty,

    do not speak.

    Two chrysanthemums

    touch in the middle of the lake

    and drift apart." (37-52)

    Cathy Song contrasts natural and unnatural beauty, as well as movement and silence. She describes the imagery of the girl's "placid plum face" and "berry-stained lips" (45, 47). The poet uses the colors of fruit to describe the makeup the geisha paints on her face. Though these colors are meant to enhance natural complexion and beauty, they create an unnatural "stenciled" look of a "mask." Through this imagery, the poet suggests the geisha paints her face in a similar way that Kitagawa Utamaro paints her. There is a certain disconnect from her real self.

    This idea is emphasized through the symbolism of the "chrysanthemums" that "touch in the middle of the lake / and drift apart" (50-52). In Japan, chrysanthemums symbolize longevity and rejuvenation, which the girl seeks by covering her face with makeup. The chrysanthemums foster imagery of the girl's lips, which touch and part in silence.

    Song uses different types of flowers to symbolize feminine beauty in a unique way. Rather than suggesting that all women are beautiful, delicate flowers, she uses the flowers to convey a wide range of feelings and emotions that color the female experience.

    Picture Bride: Themes

    Picture Bride focuses on the themes of womanhood, femininity, family, immigrant experiences, and cultural heritage.

    Womanhood, Femininity, and Family

    Cathy Song characterizes womanhood and femininity with complexity through relationships. She explores a woman's relationship with herself and her family. She explores how a woman perceives her own beauty in light of society and how their roles color their identity as wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters. Rather than seeing the familial role of a woman as something oppressive, Song highlights and explores how the connection to family, culture, and society is integral to the experience of womanhood and perceptions of femininity.

    Immigrant Experiences and Cultural Heritage

    Throughout Picture Bride, Cathy Song reflects on her grandparents' immigrant experiences and how it shapes her own view of life. Song's poetry displays great empathy and yearning to understand and connect with experiences that are foreign to her. Song's reflection on the lives of her ancestors and their impact on her own upbringing stresses the importance of remembering cultural heritage.

    Song ties in elements of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese culture and tradition to show how one's cultural heritage affects their experience of the world. This longing to keep the connection with one's cultural roots alive can be clearly seen in the poem "Blue Lantern," as Song's grandfather plays the shakuhachi (an ancient Chinese and Japanese bamboo flute) to remember his deceased wife:

    It was your grandfather

    mourning his dead wife.

    He played for her each night;

    her absence,

    the shape of his grief

    funneled through the bamboo flute.

    A ritual of remembrance,

    keeping her memory alive

    with his old breath." (24-32)

    Picture Bride - Key takeaways

    • Picture Bride is the first collection of poetry by Cathy Song.
    • Picture Bride features poems including "Picture Bride," "The Youngest Daughter," "Waialua," "Blue Lantern," and "The White Porch."
    • Song's grandmother was a 'picture bride,' as she moved from Korea to marry a Korean immigrant working in Hawaii.
    • The poetry book heavily features literary devices such as imagery and symbolism.
    • Picture Bride explores the themes of womanhood, femininity, family, immigrant experiences, and cultural heritage.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Picture Bride

    Is "Picture Bride" a true story?

    The poem "Picture Bride" is based on Cathy Song's grandmother's experience as a 'picture bride' who had to move from Korea to Hawaii to marry a man she had never met before.

    What is considered the meaning of the term 'picture bride'?

    The meaning of the term 'picture bride' refers to the practice of early 20th-century immigrant workers in the US, Canada, and Brazil selecting brides from their native countries through an exchange of photographs mediated by a matchmaker.

    What happens at the end of "Picture Bride"?

    At the end of the poem "Picture Bride," Cathy Song imagines her grandmother's awkward first encounter with her grandfather.

    What are the themes of Picture Bride?

    The themes of Picture Bride include womanhood, femininity, family, immigrant experiences, and cultural heritage. 

    Why were picture brides so important to establishing the Japanese American community?

    Picture brides were important to establishing the Japanese American community because they married Japanese men who were immigrants living in Hawaii and other regions of the United States. They helped raise families that carried on Japanese traditions. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of poems does the book feature?

    Which poem speaks of Song's grandmother's initial encounter with her grandfather? 

    Which artist did not inspire the poetry book?

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