Girl Powdering Her Neck

by Cathy Song
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

“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.

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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 room in which the woman kneels, this being a traditional Japanese house, she has left her slippers. Because everyone in this culture took off their shoes before entering a house or a room off a balcony (as the room in the poem probably is), this intimate detail portrays the woman as utterly human, ordinary, needful of slippers—hardly the intensely seductive and fragile creature she is about to turn herself into for her day’s work. Again, in the last two stanzas of the poem, the narrator imagines the woman as human, as perhaps longing for some break in the facade that she creates daily.

From the setting the narrator moves in the second stanza to the woman herself, briefly describing the color of her hair. The third stanza provides evidence of the woman’s occupation as a courtesan, with the phrase “the ritual/ wheel of the body” hinting at the countless days begun with the same ritual application of powder used to whiten and smooth, to make “translucent skins” with many delicate layers of powder. The implications of the double entendre of the next line, that “She practices pleasure,” are made clear in the closing lines of the stanza, in which the narrator looks ahead to the movement “some other hand will trace” upon the woman’s face, following, as the verb “trace” suggests, her very movements.

The fine kimono, draped open at the shoulders so that the woman can powder her neck without spoiling the silk, is described in stanza 5. From the woman’s shoulders and neck the narrator’s attention turns to her face reflected in the mirror, a familiar device of ukiyo-e prints that allows the artist to portray two views of a woman’s beauty. The narrator compares the mirror to “a winter pond” in which the woman’s face can be seen “rising to meet itself.” The stanza’s comparisons of the woman’s shoulder to a snow-covered hill and her face to a reflection in a pond suggest cool appraisal of her beauty, which is indeed what the woman herself bestows upon her reflected beauty in the sixth stanza, where her “eyes narrow/ in a moment of self-scrutiny.” The final image of the poem of two chrysanthemums touching and drifting apart “in the middle of a lake” is a metaphoric echo of the woman’s futilely parting her lips in the previous stanza, “as if desiring to disturb/ the placid plum face.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

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 of beauty” that she wears, as another, smaller metaphor, “the symmetry of silence,” suggests.

The lining of the free verse is fairly simple, with line breaks coming at points suggested by naturally occurring breaks in grammatical units, such as before similes, as in the lines “She dips a corner of her sleeve/ like a brush into water,” before prepositional phrases, as in “Her hair is black/ with hints of red,” or after verbs:

The eyes narrowin a moment of self-scrutiny.The mouth partsas if desiring to disturbthe placid plum face.

Slightly more complex lining is found in stanza 4, with “Morning begins the ritual/ wheel of the body,” but this is almost the only instance of an unexpected disruption of a syntactical unit. The effect of this steady pulsing rhythm is to echo the poem’s theme, that almost nothing unexpected will ever occur in the ritualized form of beauty this woman inhabits.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 203

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Zhou, Xiaojing. “Intercultural Strategies in Asian American Poetry.” In Re-placing America: Conversations and Contestations, edited by Ruth Hsu et al. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

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