The poem "Girl Powdering Her Neck" by Cathy Song depicts a woman whose heart is in conflict. It is based on a painting of the same name by Kitagawa Utamaro. In the painting, only the back of the woman's head can be seen, but her face is plainly...
The poem "Girl Powdering Her Neck" by Cathy Song depicts a woman whose heart is in conflict. It is based on a painting of the same name by Kitagawa Utamaro. In the painting, only the back of the woman's head can be seen, but her face is plainly visible in the mirror she is holding.
The poem takes the same approach. Most of it describes the woman's beauty routine, in which she creates an artificial appearance. The poet writes that the woman "practices pleasure," and the powder she applies to her skin "some other hand will trace." From these phrases we can deduce that she is a courtesan, and so she is at the mercy of the wealthy people or nobility who purchase her services.
The woman prepares herself for her clientele in numerous ways. She bathes; she applies moisture to her skin; she applies powder; she applies lipstick; she puts on a special kimono.
As she clears the mirror to "paint herself," she pauses and has a moment of reflection. Her "eyes narrow in a moment of self-scrutiny." This means that she thinks about her life and what she has become. Her mouth opens as if she wants to speak, perhaps to protest the fact that she is used and abused by others. However, the moment passes and she doesn't speak, because her face is "stenciled into the mask of beauty." In other words, the artificial thing that others have made of her prevents her from speaking out in honesty.
The poet concludes this moment with the imagery of two flowers in a lake touching and then drifting apart. This represents the moment of honesty that the woman experiences while she is preparing for her duties. Her true personality glimpses the artificial persona of the courtesan that she is applying. She would like to break free but she hasn't the strength, and so the moment passes.