Cathy Song and Claribel Alegria

I’m not assigned to blog this evening, but after reading Cathy Song’s “Lost Sister” I was reminded of a poem call “En la playa” by a Nicaraguan poet named Claribel Alegria. I read in a Spanish lit. class last year and thought I’d share it on the blog to see if anyone else saw similarities.

Here is the poem (translated version):

It’s really nothing. / Come here. / Pick up the bucket with your other hand / I’ll tell you another story if you stop crying / it happened in China / Do you know where China is? / She shakes her head, no, and approaches reluctantly / with her runny nose / and her blue bathing trunks / shedding sand. / A long time ago, I tell her as she climbs onto my lap, far away in China they used to bind women’s feet / so they’d stop growing / all the rest of them grew except their feet imprisoned in bandages / and the poor women could scarcely walk/their fingernails were left long more claws than fingernails/and the poor women could scarcely pick up a cup to drink their tea/It’s not that they were useless it’s that their fathers their husbands their bothers wanted them that way: a luxury object or a slave/that still happens all over the world/it’s not their feet that are bound but their minds, Carole/and there are women who accept it and women how don’t/let me tell you about Rafaela Herrera: together with other women she terrified none other than Lord Nelson with drums with fireworks with shouts/there wasn’t a single man there only women/Lord Nelson was frightened/he thought the whole country had risen against him (he’d come from England to invade Nicaragua) and he’d returned to his own land defeated/your twisted thumd is like being a woman/you’ll have to use it a lot and you’ll see how well it serves you/Run along and play now/don’t carry sand/help your cousins build the castle/put towers on it and walls and terraces and knock it down and build it up/don’t carry sand let them do it for a while/let them bring you bucketsful of sand

The part in Song’s poem about foot binding reminded me of this:

And the daughters were grateful:
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,
without breaking―
the arc of their movements

It seems like both poets evoke a sense of heritage between women: “You remember your mother
who walked for centuries”

It seemed to me that there was a sentiment of abandoning the past through emigration, away from their home country. Whereas Alegria’s poem seems to speak about a relationship between women that extends beyond heritage. Do you think Song is sending a different message to her readers about how the past should affect time?

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3 Responses to Cathy Song and Claribel Alegria

  1. elliejo44 says:

    I remember reading the Alegria poem in Spanish Textual Analysis too! I really liked this poem, and I’m so glad you made this connection.

    Though I think these poems share in common the description of foot-binding, I think the authors are making different commentaries on this practice. Alegria (which, interestingly enough, translates to “happiness”) sees the binding of feet as a way for men to reduce women to immobile objects. In contrast, Song sees foot binding, though it limits women’s mobility, as causing Chinese women to develop other ways to travel: “But they traveled far/ in surviving,/ learning to stretch the family rice,/ to quiet the demons,/ the noisy stomachs.” Despite their bound feet, the Chinese women of Song’s heritage were instrumental in ensuring that their families survived. These women exercised expertise and some form of power in “surviving.”

    Song’s poem alludes to Chinese immigration to America, where “women can stride along with men.” But while the images of surviving in China, where women ensured nourishment, Song points to life in America as being one of “meager provisions and sentiments/ of once belonging” and a “flimsy household.” Despite what we consider today as the barbarism of foot-binding, Song expresses a deep connection to her heritage- and although she is able to travel wherever she wishes, she feels removed from any real sense of home. How did everyone else interpret the poem?

  2. bestrout says:

    I got a similar idea about how Song’s narrator is thinking of China. It seems like the narrator left one kind of oppression, but there are new kinds waiting, “Dough-faced landlords/ slip in and out of your keyholes,/ making claims you don’t understand,/ tapping into your communication systems/ of laundry lines and restaurant chains.” The narrator is connected to China through her heritage, but she has rebelled against it to move to America, and now that she is in America she still does not quite feel like she belongs. It seems Song is speaking to the challenge of assimilating to a new country/home when you really still feel connected to another, but you cannot be in that home anymore, and you are not fully accepted into the new one. It’s a complicated relationship that this narrator has with China. She realizes practices like foot-binding do not fit into her view of what the world should be, she realizes that “learning to stretch the family rice,/ to quiet the demons,/ the noisy stomachs” is also not the life she wants for herself, but perhaps she feels as though she exchanged her true home (oppressed as she may have been in some ways) for freedom in lonliness. How should she reconcile her new life with her old recognition of who her self was?

  3. emcd23 says:

    I really liked this connection. As far as I can see, the poems by both Song and Alegria seem to recognize the strength of the women who came before the narrators; in Song’s poem, even the women with bound feet learned to have a deep sense of tranquility, self control, and will power, while in Alegria’s poem, the focus is on women like Rafaela Herrera who broke out of conventional ‘female’ behavior to accomplish something great. Both poems seem to be about taking up the dignity, strength, and adaptability of one’s predecessors and applying those qualities to the life one has now chosen (or will choose) for oneself.

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