Song is describing a print of a scene where a woman is putting on makeup and grooming herself. The fact that he is looking at a picture is important because it is a moment frozen in time. The poem is about the transitory nature of beauty, the objectification of women and what women go through to sustain beauty. The picture freezes this moment. In reality, beauty does not last. The line “she is about to paint herself” literally illustrates that she is creating beauty. It is fake. It is a mask she must routinely reapply because that is the role she’s been given.
Morning begins the ritual
wheel of the body,
the application of translucent skins.
She practices pleasure: (16-19)
She is a courtesan. This could mean she is someone who attends court, pays close attention to some authority figure, or it could also mean she is a prostitute. In the case of the latter, not only is her beauty transitory and for show; it is also for sale. The woman is confined to this position in life. Her inner self is hidden under these layers of beauty (powder and makeup). She is selling her own objectification. Her beauty is all that matters to those around her. They do not care about her mind.
The mouth parts
as if desiring to disturb
the placid plumb face;
break the symmetry of silence.
But the berry-stained lips,
stenciled into the mask of beauty,
do not speak. (43-49)
Her voice and personality are confined by the “mask of beauty.” She must live in a society where she is admired for her beauty; not her intellect. Therefore, she is forced to continue the ritual to keep up the appearance of being beautiful. Otherwise, she will become irrelevant. Her “placid plumb face” and “berry-stained lips” are a painting. This image is dead; just like the picture itself. She has become a picture; not a person. A picture cannot speak.