1,538 Degrees


A poem about Lindo and Waverly Jong from The Joy Luck Club:
A school assignment I stumbled upon while clearing up my Google Drive.

Written when I was 14, supplemented with my own analysis (for once)!



ANALYSIS

TITLE

This poem is entitled ‘1,538 Degrees’, symbolic of the resolution of the conflict between the Jongs. 1538 degrees celsius is the melting point of iron, a metal commonly used to forge double-edged swords (jian) in Chinese culture. In sparring with these weapons, Lindo and Waverly only hurt each other and themselves. Hence, only when these blades are cast into a fire of equal heat will the swords melt and battle conclude.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

This piece that I have written is a fusion of a shape-poem and a free-verse poem––its formation is meant to mimic a fissure in the earth, a tragic representation of the way Lindo and Waverly progressively (and unconsciously) broadened the gap that lies between them with their own solipsistic pride. Beyond this visually perceptible shape, however, lies a structure that also illustrates a dialogue between mother and daughter. Lindo’s voice is echoed by the verses on the left, which contain simplistic words that are all monosyllabic and uncapitalized––common characteristics of the characters and romanization of the Chinese language. Conversely, Waverly’s words manifest themselves in the verses on the right, most of which are elaborate and polysyllabic, just as how an English-speaking American would talk. Nonetheless, the poem ends with a stand-alone verse that seems to weave both sides of the poem together, neutralizing the polarity of these two rivalling voices: a representation of the inextricable bond that will always remain between mother and daughter.

DICTION

Specific choices of words such as ‘choleric’ and ‘burgundy’ serve to amplify Lindo’s and Waverly’s dominant traits of ambitiousness, obstinacy and power. The term ‘choleric’ is used as one of the four temperaments in ancient typology to describe irritable and extroverted ‘alphas’ in society, which depicts both Lindo and Waverly flawlessly. Burgundy, a shade of dark red, emblematizes determination and strong-willed strategy and is often associated with warriors. 

The line ‘s(h)ow me a seed and I’ll give you a garden’ encapsulates the misunderstanding between mother and daughter and how language barrier is sometimes a major factor. To Lindo, Waverly’s success in the field of chess should be attributed to her efforts as she believes that only because she ‘(sows)’ a seed for Waverly does Waverly attain success. Lindo posits that without her successful grooming, Waverly would have never proved herself to be a prodigy. This, however, is contended by Waverly, with her perspective being that Lindo had merely ‘(shown)’ her an opportunity to succeed and her achievements in chess are purely due to her hard work. It is a challenge for both of them to communicate this, however, thus this element of wordplay is a rendition of one of their many conflicts.

IMAGERY

‘Serpentine…lanes’ depicts a snake-like, coiling road and ‘nose-horned viper’ is a common name for vipera ammodytes, the species with the highest venom toxicity in all of Europe––effective in creating a link between the Jongs’ visages and their Machiavellian strategies. 

Trampling on the ‘fortune cookies’––a delicate treat that serves as a reminder of Lindo’s scheming methods of soliciting a proposal–– demonstrates how the Jongs will only be able to resolve all of their unspoken feuds when they cease their mind games and endless strategies.  

The imagery of ‘hands’ is analogous to how the Jongs tackle and confront their challenges without a trace of fear. Similarly, the imagery of the cosmos and the surface of the earth correspond to how they have the intuition to foresee greater things in the future yet paradoxically have the ability to be empirical in nature, solving problems with nothing but pragmatism and reason.

Additional Notes 

  • ‘bare a love’ — the emotional expressiveness of the Jongs are not very developed, as we observe from their introspective way of emoting. The ambiguity of their feelings often lead to copious misunderstandings. 
  • ‘labyrinthine constellations’ — parallel to the confusion they always try to create for one another 
  • ‘zig-zag earthen chasm’ — the shape of a zig-zag consists of two alternating lines head toward different directions, enunciating the inherent conflict in its own structure. 
  • ‘licked by smouldering embers in ovens’ — Lindo had to engage in a lot of laborious work in her pursuit of the American dream, one that she had intended Waverly to benefit from, unwary of its potential to bring them apart as well.
  • The juxtapositioning of Lindo and Waverly’s hands cast a spotlight on their differences and the privileges they enjoy or enjoyed.
  • ‘silver little flowers of eloquence’ and ‘dainty monochromatic fields of grass’ — symbolic imagery of a chess board.
  • ‘amorphous shapes i find tough to trace with my migrant tongue’ — no matter how hard Lindo tries to relate to Waverly, especially in terms of linguistics, she often finds it challenging to adapt to speaking English.
  • ‘burgundy peripheries of your lips’ and ‘american lashes batting to a staccato’ — Waverly’s undeniable aura of sophistication, influenced by the Western community she grew up in.
  • ‘like morse from a ship sealed … in an eigengrau fog’ — the morse code is already a cipher in itself, a poignant reminder of how the Jongs tend to intentionally confuse each other with complicated interactions. To understand the other, one has to decode and decipher abstract codes they send to each other from ‘an eigengrau fog’: a colour commonly used to describe the colour of darkness. The darkness is yet another representation of the foolish confusion they create for one another to stumble in navigating it.
  • ‘you learn the hard way that lost mail never really does return to its sender’ in this case, Waverly is being compared to a piece of lost mail in the midst of thousands. By introducing her to the American culture, Lindo spends every day losing more and more of her daughter in the growing pile of envelopes only waiting to be returned. Another interpretation of this line could be the dilution of meaning in linguistics through translation. Because of the language barrier that exists between mother and daughter, visceral messages in their words can never be appropriately conveyed to the other.
  • ‘chase or be chased’ — Lindo had signed Waverly up for this imagined competition the moment she fostered Waverly’s ambition to be the best at something (in this context, chess). Waverly keeps moving forward, deluded by the fallacious assumption that her ultimate goal is to surpass her mother, when Lindo only cares about running alongside her daughter to keep her on track. This not only creates a literal distance between them but also an emotional gap.

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