“Girl Powdering Her Neck” is both about the girl of the title and Utamaro’s depiction of her. As in poems by William Carlos Williams, Cathy Song “reads” the work of a visual artist and finds meaning in it, leading the reader to see beyond the surface of the beauty the print depicts. The “peach-dyed kimono/ patterned with maple leaves/ drifting across the silk” is a lovely image whose surface is so perfect there seems to be no need to look beyond it. Yet Cathy Song offers an interpretation of this beauty that is at odds with its pure serenity. By gazing long enough at the woman preparing to powder her neck, some idea about what is going on in the woman’s mind surfaces: She may have something to say but does not. She is so thoroughly masked by the powder, the berry-stain, even the lovely kimono that no disruption of the beautiful surface that she has created can be allowed—either by the conventions of the culture that invented her beauty or by herself, who lives and fulfills those conventions. She thinks (“The eyes narrow/ in a moment of self-scrutiny”), but her lips “do not speak.”
Another theme of the poem may be that beauty is as rigorous, demanding, and confining as it is beautiful, but it is not so thoroughly masklike as to forbid any glimpse into the human being behind the facade. Cathy Song brings the humanity of the girl powdering her neck alive by recognizing in Utamaro’s print Utamaro’s recognition of that humanity. The poem is a tribute both to this girl and those who lived lives like hers and to Utamaro, for his insight into the nature of their beauty.