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Cathy Song, an Asian-American poet who grew up in Hawaii, wrote, “Who Makes the Journey.” She has gotten several awards, such as the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and Song the Shelley Memorial Award, in her career. Cathy Song’s poems have been filled with imagery and tone that have left readers awestruck. “Who Makes the Journey” is about growing old and growing up too fast. In the poem, the reader is taken to through an elderly woman’s life through a third person’s perspective.
In the first stanza of “Who Makes the Journey,” Song introduces the life of a widow and a widower in a sad, soft tone. “In most cases, it is the old woman who makes the journey; the old man having had the sense to stay put and die at home” (Song, 1-6). This describes how women are the ones to move forward with their lives, while men are the ones that tend reminisce on old things, or in other cases, to die before their wives.
This sets a remorseful, reminiscent tone for the poem. The tone she has created helps one understand the sadness that comes with aging and the desire to go back in time.
In stanza two, the Azores and the Orient are mentioned: “She comes from the Azores and she comes from the Orient. It makes no difference” (Song, 10-11). This suggests that she is a woman of many places, and she has seen many things, and she has been many places in her lifetime.
This combination sets an almost empathetic tone, making the reader respect the wisdom and experiences of the old woman.
In the third and fourth stanzas, imagery is introduced. “The short substantial legs buckle under the weight of the ghost child she carried centuries ago like a bundle of rags” (Song, 14-19). The “ghost child” in this passage refers to an old memory she has been carrying around inside of her. By using a simile, comparing the old woman to a bundle of rags, suggests that the old lady has perhaps been haunted or held down by this old memory, speeding up the inevitable process of time and aging.
In the fifth and sixth stanza, an alternate view of the old woman has been added to suggest the passing of time and just how quickly life moves. “The grown woman stops impatiently and self-consciously to motion Hurry to her mother. Seeping into your side view mirror like a black mushroom blooming in a bowl of water, the stooped gnome figure wades through the river of cars hauling her sack of cabbages, the white and curved, translucent leaves of which she will wash individually as if they were porcelain cups” (Song, 23-37).
By using “the stooped gnome figure,” the reader is able to understand just how old the woman is, indicating poor and further deteriorating health due to old age. This continues to support the empathetic and respectful tone set earlier in the poem. In the last few lines of the seventh stanza, it describes how the old woman will individually and cautiously wash each leaf of lettuce. This reinforces the age of the widowed old woman, showing that she has the time and the patience to individually wash leaves of lettuce. It also creates more empathy, cluing the reader into her loneliness.
In the last two stanzas of the poem, the passing of time is summed up and described in a brief, impactful manner. “Those cryptic eyes rest on your small reflection for an instant. Years pass. History moves like an old woman crossing the street” (Song, 40-44). The cryptic eyes watching the old woman refer to the people, ultimately the readers of the poem, and the mirror they are looking out of symbolizes the truth. By watching the old woman cross, they are hit with the cold, realization that time passes so quickly and life is too precious to waste.
Cathy Song fills “Who Makes the Journey” with stunning imagery that puts a crystal clear, vivid, mental image inside one’s head. The selection of words and the way they are arranged creates such imagery that transports the reader into the world where the poem takes place. In the beginning of the poem, the mood is very sad and remorseful; as the poem continues on, it changes to a happier, lighter mood. This creates verbal irony because aging often brings on negative moods, rather than positive.
Cathy Song’s poems have been described by Richard Hugo, from the Yale Series, as follows, “Her poems are flowers: colorful, sensual, and quiet, and they are offered almost shyly as bouquets to those moments in life that seemed minor but in retrospect count the most. She often reminds a loud, indifferent, hard world of what truly matters to the human spirit.” Overall, this poem attempts to sum up the meaning of life and the passing of time from a unique perspective. Imagery and tone are two main literary elements in this poem, and understanding them is key to deciphering the meaning of the poem.
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