Water in different forms, in the lucid flowing substance and the quiet pond, has always fascinated poets. Seeing it as a metaphor for human life as well as many other things, poets often introduce water in their works to create a special setting. “I Ask My Mother to Sing” by John Liu and “Lovers and the Susquehanna” by Reed Fontaine both use water in their settings, although they employ it in very different ways.
John Liu in his poem renders the experience of an Asian American who has never been to his native country but can derive the idea from the song performed by his mother and grandmother. The water is mentioned as it appears in the song that mentions waterlilies and the rain on Kuen Ming Lake. This climate feature is perhaps peculiar to China and is reminiscent of the landscapes of what could have been the author’s motherland. The rain, the river, and the boat are then a cultural symbol, something that the Chinese thought to be so significant that they included it in a song.
Rain is a powerful force back in China where life is less ‘civilized’ and more dependent on the forces of nature. People more often have their plans disrupted by nature, just as the picnickers are “running away in the grass”. The folk song seems to be very detailed, depicting the event with great precision: it portrays “how the waterlilies fill with rain until they overturn, spilling water into water, then rock back, and fill with more..” The power of the rain comes out forcefully in these lines and is felt with all the strength of natural elements. Water symbolized by the rain stands for the motherland, something the character lost a long while ago and seeks to retrieve.
In “Lovers and the Susquehanna” by Reed Fontaine the water, in contrast, is real and not imaginary. The river is the setting in which the lovers move and act. The two human beings are depicted as two small objects that act against the background of the element that to a great degree defines their interactions. There is no cultural association, as in Liu’s poem. Instead, the water forms a direct element of the setting, in fact the dominant one along with the stones lining the river, the clouds, the grass, and the cedars.
The events portrayed are simple: a couple of naked lovers are scrambling through the forest surrounding the woods, trying to escape the boyscout boat. The water is mentioned almost in every stanza. Water and the surrounding objects are given many attributes: “growing river”, “black water”, “the dry sharp stones that line the river”.
All these epithets serve to emphasize that water appears to be unfriendly towards the couple that is struggling to find its way against the natural obstacles. Something either about their relationship or the surrounding landscape disrupts harmony that could have existed in their relationship. The poet wishes that they “could tumble together”, but they have to “wade apart”. This can be interpreted as a need to act separately in order to withstand the challenges of life. The water in the poem can therefore be interpreted as a metaphor for something larger, maybe human life that can also be likened to a flow.
Unlike Liu, Reed Fontaine is probably less concerned about the particular river and its significance to the essence of the story. The place is mentioned in the title that resembles the title of a painting in which the artist uses the setting of a particular landscape in order to convey a broader meaning that has little to with the landscape itself. The author is thus more concerned with water as a broad metaphor as opposed to the water as a cultural reference.
The two poems are therefore different in the connotations associated with water: Liu retrieves the cultural meaning of Kuen Ming Lake and the Stone Boat, while Fontaine sees water mostly as a natural element. The water has a far more central place in “Lovers and the Susquehanna” where action evolves only in one plane where it is directly affected by the surrounding water. In ““I Ask My Mother to Sing” the scene includes two settings: one related to the contemporary American setting in which the female relatives are performing an ancient song, and the setting of the song itself that includes the lake and the boat. The landscape in the second setting affects the first one, in which the boy is impressed by the traditional view. Finally, the water in Liu’s poem is more benevolent, adding a touch to the glorious landscape, while in Fontaine’s work it appears hostile to human relations, disrupting the harmony between the lovers.
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