Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, January 13, 2002



The cover photograph for Cathy Song's "The Land of Bliss," taken by her friend, A. Michele Turner, reflects the belief of Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism that many roses can be found in the Land of Bliss.

Poet sings of
journey of life

Cathy Song's poetry lives and breathes

Mother of the stolen roses
that faded like kisses ...

Blissful words yield to pain

By gary c.w. chun

Cathy Song is a thoughtful person. Whether she's quietly speaking about her life -- encompassing her family, her spirituality and her poetry -- she closes her eyes tightly on occasion to carefully choose her words, the rhythm of her phrasing as deliberate as what she commits to the page.

A member of the baby boomer generation born in the 1950s, the Chinese-Korean writer would graduate from Kalani High School, head to the mainland to finish her schooling, and earn her Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, then a Master of Fine Arts degree from Boston University in 1981.

She would then return to Honolulu and, a year later, receive her first accolade (and most crucial, careerwise) by winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets award for her collection "Picture Bride."

One of the nation's great poets, the late Richard Hugo, speaking as series editor and sole judge of the competition, called Song's poems "flowers: colorful, sensual and quiet. She often reminds a loud, indifferent, hard world of what truly matters to the human spirit."

In 1983, Song's book would be nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. It was quite an accomplishment for the then 28-year-old to be mentioned in the same breath with a veteran craftsman like James Merrill, who would go on to win for his "The Changing Light at Sandover."

In the years that followed, Song would continue to collect grants, awards and critical accolades for subsequent collections "Frameless Windows, Squares of Light" (1988) and "School Figures" (1994).

"While I'm always concerned with certain issues," she said, "they're not always apparent to me at first. It's something I don't reconcile at once, always looking at any one issue at a different angle. It was a preoccupation of mine for those number of years."

Cathy Song will hold a free poetry reading at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at Punahou School's Wo International Center.

In compiling a volume filled with self-contained poems written over a certain period of time, "I usually see something arise in terms of a common theme, where I consciously make an effort to fill in the gaps. It's then I feel that I will end up with a book or not at all. I sometimes find I'm telling myself that 'this will be the very last one I'll write for this collection!'"

After completing a book, she said, "I either don't write at all or take a completely different tack. I would start doing fiction, even though I've never published a significant amount of prose. That kind of writing is just to have a break from the poetic voice, like aerating the soil. Poetry has always been the best way to express myself."

The circumstances that surround the recent publication of her fourth book, "The Land of Bliss," are of a more somber nature, however. While a back-cover blurb by New York poet Kimiko Hahn says that the book itself is bliss -- with Song coming full circle "from daughter, to wife and mother, to the daughter of aging parents" -- most of the poems are infused with the melancholy of Song's mother succumbing to vascular dementia.

While hypertension is suspected of being the cause of strokes that occurred in her brain, Song said, "Around this time, my mother went into a depression that signaled the beginnings of the dementia. The poems in the book are my way of saying goodbye to Mom. It's a terrible illness that rendered her into a stranger and has hampered her understanding of what's happened to her.

"She still recognizes me, though, and the poems were also my way of accepting her condition. I feel that poems or art in general can be part of that healing process."

Song and her sister make it a point to regularly visit with their mother and father, who has taken his wife's illness pretty hard.

Does she think she could have dealt with such a devastating blow to her family as a younger poet?

"I don't think so, and that's partly due to the complexity and depth of coping with my mother now. I'm not a 20-year-old anymore. I'm in the middle of my life and a mother, too. The layers and complexities of life are more understandable to me now."

The cover photograph of "The Land of Bliss" is a curious one, taken by a friend of Song's on the mainland, A. Michele Turner, who also did the photography in Song's "School Figures." On top of a delicately embroidered white tablecloth sits a row of yellow roses, flanking a sculpted head of a bodhisattva.

According to the precepts of Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism (or Shin Buddhism, also known as Pure Land Buddhism), "there are a lot of roses in the Land of Bliss, but the head of bodhisattva in the picture is broken, askew. That picture seemed to be specific of the workings of wisdom and compassion I was working through in my poetry at the time, where although our own lives are broken and askew, a great awareness came out as well."

Song attributes the spiritual tone of the collection's last section to her involvement in Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism. "It gave a more formal cohesion to the spiritual layer that was always there," she said. "One poem in particular talks about the morning chant that's done in every Shin Buddhist temple at 8 a.m.

"Its appeal to me is based on, on the one hand, such a relaxed, spiritual path. There's no sense of a creator God. It's all about the here and now, to relieve suffering in the here and now, to use in everyday life in practice.

"It's a love that's not petitionary. It's not about asking for something. Instead, it's a response and expression of gratitude in true, everyday living and the awareness of the possibilities of being here.

As Song has grown as both a woman and a poet, she looks on her past accolades as just that, in the past. "The awards helped give me credibility, both with my first-time book, 'Picture Bride,' and as a poet. It's a wonderful feeling to win something. It can last for a day, even a week. But then there's the reality that there's that next poem to write."

Her poetry came of age at the same time as the local literary journal Bamboo Ridge. "Now it's seen as established in its constancy and longevity, and out of that community is my closest writing friendships" -- people like Eric Chock, Darrell Lum, Wing Tek Lum and particularly Juliet Kono, Nora Okja Keller and Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who, with Song, did a group reading back in February.

"We could use some new blood, but young people are always wanting to start their own thing."

And she's one of the few writers who don't have to depend on a regular job to make ends meet, though not because poetry sales have suddenly attained best-selling proportions. "I'm very lucky to have my husband as a patron." (The Kaiser emergency room physician and potter has helped his wife raise their three children, now 19, 16 and 11.)

Song's eldest son is a biology major in college in California. The middle daughter "keeps us all in line! She has strong opinions, not wishy-washy at all, and feels fiercely with a passion. She's also a pretty good photographer. My youngest son likes to write funny stories because he likes the response he gets when he reads them to his classmates.

"The children have accepted what their mother does," she said, "although our pediatrician once asked one of them, 'What does your mother do?' and my son said, 'She types.'"

The typing comes after Song's first drafts, always written in longhand. "I like to actually engage in the act of writing; it's more deliberate. Although I did some writing in a diary when I was much younger, even now I don't journal-write. It feels too all over the place.

"I did, however, always want to be a songwriter, like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, but my lack of musical talent got in the way. I do liken my poems to pieces of music, where you already have the notation there in front of you. No artificial emoting is needed. I object to poems that are broadly dramatized in performance. If it's not there on the page, there's no need to add anything else. It should all be there in the text.

"A perfect example of that is the poem 'Triptych,' that's in the book. There's a lot of notation in that, how to phrase, how to breathe while reading it aloud. And 'The Boddhisatva Muses' -- whenever I've performed it, it takes a lot out of me. It's like a scent that is quiescent and is awakened with water. It's that intensity of feeling.

"Once I agree to do a public reading, I'll honor it, although it's tough to get over my initial reticence. But, as Wing Tek always tells me, I'm in the business to sell books, even though it's not part of my nature."

If there is one thing Song is proud of, it's that she has kept her artistic integrity intact throughout her years of writing.

"All of the books were true to the time they were written, what I was capable of at the time. This new book, however, didn't come easy. It represents five solid years of writing that started in 1994."

As expected, Song is not one to hang on to her critics' words. "I find it's distracting, the noise of other people's expectations and agendas.

"You have to guard yourself to criticism, because there are people out there who want to hurt you, usually because of jealousy. A lot of people just think of the finite thing, where if you gather a lot of praise, it means less for them, and it doesn't work that way. They just become prey to jealousy, greed and a kind of small-heartedness. 'The Boddhisatva Muses' and 'Stinkeye' both talk about that.

"I've come to learn to hide my happiness when it comes to praise for my work to appreciate it, not flaunt it."

Mother of the stolen roses
that faded like kisses ...

When asked for a poem from "The Land of Bliss" to reprint, Cathy Song immediately came up with "Mother of Us All."

"That poem just came out intact in one sitting, and all I could do after that was go, 'Whoa! ... Where did it come from?" she said.

"A number of years ago, my husband and I fell in love with Volcano on the Big Island, so much so that we built a small place there as a getaway. There are no distractions to take away from your true self."

She regularly traveled there alone to write her poetry, armed with a pile of legal notepads and cartridges for her fountain pen.

While the writing trips have been reduced since her mother's illness, "I remember it was a rainy afternoon, sitting under the eaves of the roof, and, realizing I had about 15 minutes, it was the last one I wrote before catching the plane back to Honolulu."

Mother of Us All

Cathy Song

Mother of the long silences
that pinned us to our chairs,
where were you in your body
if not here with us?
Mother of the stolen roses
that faded like kisses,
why so pale by the window,
peering in at us?
Mother of the prayer beads
that pooled on our pillows,
what were you murmuring,
hands like paper pressed
from us?
Mother of the snakes
that coiled around each wrist,
did it ever occur to you to
poison us?
Mother of the mirrors
that disassembled the walls,
how many times did we see you look beyond us?
Mother of the incessant purges
that sent our beautiful books and toys to charity,
what perfect world had you not already given us?
Mother of the busy hands
that tore at the spiked tongues,
what were you pulling, hiding at dusk from us?
Mother of the white hair
that sprouted overnight,
what made you skittish,
lock every door behind us?
Mother of the diminishing voice
that broke into chalk,
how could we have known there were things
you had wanted to tell us?
Mother of the disappearance
that shadowed Father's face,
when did you decide you had to leave us.

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