Monday, April 02, 2018

Poem: Cathy Song

Cathy Song, at the Island School,
April 17, 2015, from a post by
Peggy Ellenburg
(courtesy of The Voyager Voice)

Continuing the ekphrastic theme and poems about art, here is a diamond of a lyric by Cathy Song (1955-), a native of Hawai'i, whose first collection of poems, Picture Bride, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 1982, making her the first Asian American poet to be so honored (a number of amazing poets have followed in her footsteps). She has gone on to publish four more collections, including Cloud Moving Hands, which appeared in 2007. She teaches in Hawai'i's "Poets in the Schools" program and says of her process and poetry as an art, "You've got to be willing to realize that poetry is something made outside of yourself." This poem, "Girl Powdering Her Neck," is based on Kitagawa Utamaro's ukiyo-e print "Girl Powdering Her Neck," which is in the Musée Guimet in Paris.


by Cathy Song
from an ukiyo-e print by Utamaro
The light is the inside 
sheen of an oyster shell, 
sponged with talc and vapor, 
moisture from a bath. 

A pair of slippers 
are placed outside 
the rice-paper doors. 
She kneels at a low table 
in the room, 
her legs folded beneath her 
as she sits on a buckwheat pillow. 

Her hair is black 
with hints of red, 
the color of seaweed 
spread over rocks. 

Morning begins the ritual 
wheel of the body, 
the application of translucent skins. 
She practices pleasure: 
the pressure of three fingertips 
applying powder. 
Fingerprints of pollen 
some other hand will trace. 

The peach-dyed kimono 
patterned with maple leaves 
drifting across the silk, 
falls from right to left 
in a diagonal, revealing 
the nape of her neck 
and the curve of a shoulder 
like the slope of a hill 
set deep in snow in a country 
of huge white solemn birds. 
Her face appears in the mirror, 
a reflection in a winter pond, 
rising to meet itself. 

She dips a corner of her sleeve 
like a brush into water 
to wipe the mirror; 
she is about to paint herself. 
The eyes narrow 
in a moment of self-scrutiny. 
The mouth parts 
as if desiring to disturb 
the placid plum face; 
break the symmetry of silence. 
But the berry-stained lips, 
stenciled into the mask of beauty, 
do not speak. 
Two chrysanthemums 
touch in the middle of the lake 
and drift apart.

Copyright © Cathy Song, from Picture Bride (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). All rights reserved.

Kitagawa Utamaro, "Girl Powdering Her Neck," ukiyo-e print, c. 1790, Musée Guimet in Paris

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