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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is rich in visual imagery. The second stanza’s deliberately unconventional comparison of the color of the woman’s hair—“black/ with hints of red”—to “the color of seaweed/ spread over rocks” picks up the hint of ocean and water imagery begun in the opening stanza’s comparison of the scene’s light to the “sheen of an oyster shell.” This imagery is continued in the fifth stanza with the comparison of the woman’s mirror to “a winter pond” and in the last stanza’s comparison of her face itself to a still lake. The “floating world” to which this woman belongs, as suggested by this imagery, is not only a quality of experience that she can provide but also an essential part of her own character or person. She exists as part of the natural world, a positive force in it as well as a creature trapped by it.

The richest image comes in the implied metaphor that ends the poem. The striking placement of this metaphor in its own, final stanza creates the same effect as can be achieved in haiku, in which a single image reverberates with meaning barely suggested by a previous line. While more than one interpretation of the metaphor is possible, one possibility is that the two drifting chrysanthemums floating in a lake are the just-parted “berry-stained lips” in the woman’s still, white face. The aimless passivity of the flowers’ movement echoes the woman’s own absolute silence, in itself a part of the stylized “mask...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Sumida, Stephen. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawaii. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

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