The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Girl Powdering Her Neck” is a free-verse lyric poem written in short lines of varying length divided into seven stanzas, also of varying lengths. The title and descriptive subtitle (“from a ukiyo-e print by Utamaro”) refer to the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), the best known of many Japanese printmakers working in the ukiyo-e tradition who produced sensitive studies of a privileged class of highly cultivated and well-respected courtesans (among other subjects). The Japanese word ukiyo-e, commonly translated as “pictures of the floating world,” suggests the transitory nature of beauty. Like the wood-block print that the poem’s third-person narrator is describing and interpreting, the poem is a close-up view of a woman preparing herself, as she does daily, to be the object of a transitory but beautiful encounter.

The first two stanzas describe the setting in which this woman (or “girl,” according to the title) is depicted, but because the setting has already been presented by Utamaro, what the narrator offers is essentially an art critic’s view of a fine print. The opening lines—“The light is the inside/ sheen of an oyster shell”—ask the reader to imagine the quality of light in the print as much as in an actual scene, a double pleasure. Yet the poem is more than an art critic’s adventurous use of form; the narrator is as entranced by the story this scene suggests as the artist must have been, as can be seen in the poem’s interpretation of the oyster-sheen quality of the light as “moisture from a bath.” One part of the poem seems to imagine what is beyond Utamaro’s print; outside “the rice-paper doors” of the...

(The entire section is 689 words.)