‘The Youngest Daughter’ is a poem about Cathy Song’s preoccupation with death and old age. Through this piece, she explores how two women (a daughter and her mother) grow older. They show similar features that connect their souls. This connection is far more different than the relationship between a mother and daughter. The imminence of death implicitly keeps them tied to a loose bond that is about to break in the near future.
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‘The Youngest Daughter’ by Cathy Song describes the process of aging, the impact of age on the body, and the inevitability of death.
Song’s piece begins with a description of a speaker who has grown older. With age, some gloomy thoughts start to appear in her mind. She can feel some unique things that were unknown to her before. Her skin feels like rice paper, parched with heat. It can be felt right above her eyes where her old mother placed her hands. She is the youngest daughter so she has seen how the process of aging made her mother weaker day by day. Now, she can feel the same. From the third stanza of the piece, the speaker talks about the daily activities of her and her mother beginning from bathing to eating together.
You can read the full poem here.
The sky has been dark
for many years.
mother’s used to before the drying sun
parched it out there in the fields.
The first stanza of ‘The Youngest Daughter’ begins with a reference to the darkened sky. According to the speaker, her “sky” has been dark for the past few years. Here, the sky is used as a metaphor of her fate. It can also be a reference to the dark thoughts of death.
As she reveals some more details about herself, it becomes clear that she has grown older. Now, as an old woman, she can feel her skin in a different manner. With age, it has wrinkled and become coarse like rice paper. The speaker describes her skin with two other qualities that include “damp” and “pale”.
She can now feel what her old mother used to feel when she grew old. Her mother worked in the fields. Her skin parched and became dry for the heat of the sun. Aging has a similar impact on the speaker’s skin as well.
Lately, when I touch my eyelids,
my hands react as if
especially in the evenings
when the pain flares up.
The first line of the second stanza is indented in order to mark a shift in the speaker’s thoughts. Now she thinks about touching her eyelids. When she does so, her hands react differently. She can feel the heat of her skin stronger than before. The heat of life now has a paradoxical impact on her mind. It makes her aware of the fact that the coldness of death is going to replace this bodily heat sooner.
Her skin has grown pale like the color of aspirin. Besides, the term “aspirin” is tied with the idea of “migraine” present in the next line. In this way, Song uses metaphors that fit the context of the text.
The speaker now catches occasional migraines due to her age. Her mother has been massaging the left side of her face in the evenings when the pain flares up. In these lines, the poet shows the theme of the mother-daughter relationship. Even though the daughter is old and mature, her mother is still there to alleviate her pain. Besides, these lines carry a sense of hidden pain regarding losing her mother that flares up in the speaker’s mind alongside her occasional migraines.
her breathing was graveled,
six children and an old man
have sucked from these brown nipples.
The third stanza is about the present moment. After reading the first few lines of this stanza, it seems the speaker is preoccupied with the thought of her mother’s impending death. Especially, the terms “graveled” and “gruff” that are attached to the features of aging make us think this way.
The speaker describes how her mother’s breathing sounded graveled in the morning. Her voice was gruff when she took her into the bath. She was emotional regarding the fact that they are both old now.
However, she quickly gained good humor and made jokes about her breasts while bathing. In the next lines, the speaker humorously depicts themselves as two big walruses floating in the “milky water”. The phrase hints at the speaker’s thoughts encircling her mother’s breasts. She might be thinking of her childhood.
Besides, she uses the image of the walruses in order to depict her mother’s flaccid and hairy nipples. While scrubbing them clean, she felt the taste of sour milk in her mouth. It reminded her of the fact that those glands once nourished six children including her and gave pleasure to an old man (who is probably no more). All of them sucked from those brown nipples that she washed in the morning.
I was almost tender
when I came to the blue bruises
in this sunless room,
the splashing of the bathwater.
This washing session makes her think of her childhood. She came to her mother when she was suffering from diabetes. Her mother used to inject insulin around her belly. The shots made bluish bruises there. It has been thirty years that she is using this medication.
While soaping her body, the speaker noticed those marks. At that time, she only closed her eyes and sighed out of frustration and sadness. Her sighing reflects her growing sense of dying.
Besides, the hours inside the bathroom passed slowly. It makes the speaker think as it has always been like this. Time seems to have no impact in this “sunless room” where she splashed water on her body. The speaker somehow wishes to keep things in this order without changes.
In the afternoons
when she has rested,
a thousand cranes curtain the window,
fly up in a sudden breeze.
The last stanza of ‘The Youngest Daughter’ begins with the activities of the afternoon after bathing. Her mother usually prepares food for both of them. The repetition of the items cooled by her mother makes the speaker feel as if it has become a ritual. Besides, it also hints at the roots of the speaker.
Her mother prepares tea and rice. She garnishes the rice with a shred of gingered fish and a slice of pickled turnip. Here, Song uses gustatory imagery in order to convey their taste. In the next line, she compares the purplish, pale-white color of a turnip to that of the speaker’s skin. It is a token or symbol of her “white body”.
They eat in silence as if some grave event is waiting ahead of them. This silence comes from her mother’s distrust. She is well aware of the fact that her daughter is going to leave sooner. Hence, she is not to be trusted.
As the speaker toasts to her mother’s health with the tea her mother prepared, several cranes fly up, curtaining the window and flaring a sudden breeze. This departure of birds is a symbolic reference to the soul leaving the body.
Song’s ‘The Youngest Daughter’ consists of five stanzas. Each stanza does not contain a regular number of lines. The overall poem is written in free-verse. It means there is no regular rhyme or meter. Besides, this piece has a lyrical quality as it is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. The speaker is none other than the poet herself. Through this piece, she explores the relationship between her and her old mother. Apart from that, the structure of lines is unconventional. They are often cut short that makes readers go through a number of lines to grasp the idea.
In Song’s ‘The Youngest Daughter,’ readers can find the following literary devices.
- Metaphor: This device is used in a number of instances. For example, the first line contains a metaphor. Here, the dark “sky” is a metaphor of the speaker’s fate.
- Simile: It occurs in “My skin has become as damp/ and pale as rice paper” and “floating in the milky water/ like two walruses”.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. The lines of a particular stanza are enjambed and it forces readers to go through the consecutive lines.
- Anaphora: This device is used in the fourth and fifth lines of the first stanza, and the second and third lines of the third stanza.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “pale as rice paper”, “migraine. Mother”, “graveled (…) gruff”, “blue bruises”, etc.
The poem ‘The Youngest Daughter’ appears in Cathy Song’s first book of poetry, Picture Bride. Song submitted a rough draft of Picture Bride for a poetry competition of Yale University in 1982. This collection was well received and published the next year. It won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1982. The poems published in this collection explore Song’s experiences of being a daughter, sister, mother, and wife. She depicts the transition of womanhood with special emphasis on the relationship of age with the human body. These themes are present in the text of ‘The Youngest Daughter’ too.
Cathy Song’s ‘The Youngest Daughter’ is about the mother-daughter relationship and aging. Through this piece, Song explores how the process of aging and impending death connects two souls. This piece is also about the irony of relationships and the growing sense of distrust in a mother’s heart.
‘The Youngest Daughter’ was published in 1983. It appears in Cathy Song’s first poetry collection Picture Bride. Song submitted the collection for a poetry competition organized by Yale University and won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1982 for the book.
It is a free-verse lyric poem. The text consists of five stanzas without any set number of lines. It is written from the first-person point of view. The speaker is the poet Cathy Song who speaks in the piece through her poetic persona. There is no regular rhyme scheme or meter. Song uses a number of internal rhymings in the poem.
Song’s ‘The Youngest Daughter’ explores the themes of the mother-daughter relationship, aging, death, time, human body, womanhood, and old age. The main idea of the poem revolves around the theme of a speaker’s transition to old-age and how it impacts the body. Besides, it also shows the relationship of an old mother and her aging daughter.
The tone of this piece is sad, ironic, nostalgic, and depressing. Song uses this tone in order to accompany the main themes of the text. Besides, the tone changes in a few instances where the poet explores the relationship between her and her mother. There the tone turns out to be warm and calm.
The following poems similarly explore the themes present in Cathy Song’s poem ‘The Youngest Daughter’.
- ‘My Mother at Sixty-Six’ by Kamala Das — This emotional piece describes a daughter’s feelings towards her aging mother while leaving her. Read more Kamala Das poems.
- ‘Praise Song For My Mother’ by Grace Nichols — This piece is written in honor of a speaker’s mother and explores what her mothers meant to her. Explore more Grace Nichols poems.
- ‘On Aging’ by Maya Angelou — It’s one of the best-loved poems of Maya Angelou. This piece explores what it means to get old. Read more Maya Angelou poems.
- ‘Skin’ by Philip Larkin — It’s one of the best-known poems of Philip Larkin. This poem is concerned with the influence and several aspects of the human body, especially the skin. Explore more Philip Larkin poems.