Visions of China in “Heaven” and “Persimmons”

[Author's Note: In order to stave off writing a new essay, I've decided to seize this busy moment to post a couple I've written this past semester that I'm decently proud of. This one's from late September, for my "Imagining America" English class. I'm sure you could find both poems discussed below online—it might be helpful to reference them (I've left in line citations). I think this is a fairly insightful analysis, and I really love the phrase "stern matron of disambiguation."]

Poets Cathy Song and Li-Young Lee share a curious number of biographical similarities, many of which notably inform their work. Born two years apart, Song in Hawaii and Lee in Indonesia, they both predominately claim Chinese heritage and American upbringing. They emerged as part of a larger wave of Asian-American writers in the Seventies and Eighties and scored critical acclaim with their inaugural collections, Song's Picture Bride (1982) and Lee's Rose (1986). Over the course of their careers, both have continued to ruminate on themes of cross-cultural identity and concerns that, while universal, are deeply rooted in the Asian-American experience. In “Heaven” (from Song's sophomore collection, Frameless Windows, Squares of Light) and “Persimmons” (from Lee's debut), they examine the divisions that lay not only between but within individual Americans in a larger society that encourages assimilation and uniformity. Mired in dissatisfaction and isolation, the speakers in “Heaven” and “Persimmons” are able to transcend their often mundane or tiresome surroundings through the unifying fixations of the poems' titles, each recalling something of their ancestral Chinese homeland that is now lost to them.

In its surrealist, dreamlike contours, “Heaven” implicates three generations of Chinese-Americans across two continents in an integrated, cyclical vision of departures and returns. The speaker considers both her grandfather, who left China to build railroads in the old American West and never returned, and her son, of mixed race, who envisions China as heaven—peaceful, awaiting, and just out of sight. In evocative, visual language, Song draws a sharp contrast between the drab nearby and the idyllic remote. The speaker's home “just east of the Rockies” is rife with impermanence, decay, and inadequacy—“reedy aspen with light, fluttering leaves” for vegetation, “the broken fences, the whiny dog, the rattletrap cars” for possessions, and “this creek they call a river” for environment (17, 23, 29, 38). America is portrayed as a failed homeland, a mean, inhospitable surrogate for the China the speaker and her son have never known. The speaker's ambivalent feelings for her country are emphasized in her somewhat ironic reference to words and cultural relics that are uniquely American. She locates her home “on the pancake plains,” amidst “landlocked, makeshift ghost towns,” and describes a Wild West bustling with “shootouts and fistfights in the back alley,” characterizing the nation not only in its breakfast, geography, and mythos but in its hard-sounding and ruthlessly functional compound words (16, 49, 32).

The distant, unknown China fares distinctly better by the speaker's imaginative rendering. In the first stanza, China is described as “that blue flower on the map, / bluer than the sea,” and the rest of the poem alludes to China, whether directly or indirectly, by referencing both blue, classically associated with heaven, and the sea, the Pacific Ocean being the physical barrier (or bridge) between such separate poles of existence (6-7). The speaker describes the Rocky Mountains as “shimmering blue above the air,” leading her son to the poem's metaphysical conclusion that “you can see all the way to heaven” (58, 63). The sea remains largely as faraway as the China with which it's associated: their “landlocked” American home is “a mile above the sea” (49, 19). But the sea has also the power to transport—the speaker's grandfather came from Guangzhou, a port city navigable to the South China Sea, and as her son envisions heaven, he is described as “leaning out from the laundry's rigging, / the work shirts fluttering like sails” (61-62). Just as heaven is always a foil to the worldly, so is China-as-heaven a dream of escaping a dingy and unfulfilling lifestyle, fueled by a complex relationship and fixation with the past.

“Persimmons” taps into many of the same feelings of alienation and disillusionment, but Lee's approach is entirely different. Rather than focusing on setting and the sharp division between China and America, “Persimmons” concerns itself with the individual and the fracturing of Chinese and American identity within the narrator. This sense of disorientation and uncertainty becomes part of the structural map of the poem in the narrator's repeated confusion over pairs of English words. Doubling the crisis, however, is his loss of Chinese words as he forges an American identity; as he and Donna lie naked in the yard, says the narrator, “I teach her Chinese. / Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I've forgotten. / Naked: I've forgotten” (22-24). American experience comes as his Chinese self is blanked over. This fundamental confusion and disarray, a concern for things misplaced, forgotten, or misunderstood, is echoed in several carefully laid parallels. Mrs. Walker herself, that stern matron of disambiguation, is guilty of “not knowing the difference”: she presents a persimmon to the class as a “Chinese apple,” when in fact that term is ascribed to pomegranates (4, 43).

As in “Heaven,” the eponymous image of the poem is a kind of redemption that reconciles the reality of life in America with the narrator's longing to hold on to his Chinese past. That Lee used the persimmon in particular to achieve this effect is no accident: persimmons have historically been associated with Chinese herbal medicine and, in that field, are widely recognized for their restorative powers. The narrator's mother describes how “every persimmon has a sun / inside”—it is this metaphorical sun, classically representative of light, power, and goodness, that can penetrate the father's blindness as he recalls perfectly, in painting, the fullness of ripe persimmons (46-47). This image resonates in the cardinal's song (“The sun, the sun”) as the persimmons ripen on the windowsill; the sun imbibes the fruit with a sense of sublime perfection, as would be missing from the unripened fruit the careless Mrs. Walker serves and which the narrator must decline (53). The sun, then, represents China, stamping the persimmon with its memory. This is perhaps why the narrator tells the American Donna that “she is beautiful as the moon” (28). The moon and the sun occupy separate times and spaces, and he is learning to accept the duality of night and day, of American existence and Chinese heritage.

The titles “Heaven” and “Persimmons” are more than chance or arbitrary attempts to grasp at the “subject” of each poem. They represent two narrow but meaningful points of access for Chinese-Americans living estranged from any one culture to retain something, even if only a vision, of a purer and brighter Chinese past. Both poems are simultaneously an indictment of the shortcomings of a homogeneous, uncomprehending greater America and an acceptance of that reality as their future—heaven and persimmons can only be substantive enough to impact the speakers' attitudes towards their situations, not the situations themselves. It is telling that each poem ends on a note of clarity, tranquility, and closeness—as if Cathy Song and Li-Young Lee were reconciling with their own split identities, arriving at some intersection with the past that seems to transcend the present.

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