Reflection Paper 5
Beauty and Sadness
Rodrigo B. Liwanag Jr.
Professor Mary Grace Ferrer
(from Picture Bride) by Cathy Song
He drew hundreds of women
in studies unfolding
like flowers from a fan.
Teahouse waitresses, actresses,
geishas, courtesans and maids.
They arranged themselves
before this quick, nimble man
whose invisible presence
one feels in these prints
is as delicate
as the skin-like paper
he used to transfer
and retain their fleeting loveliness.
Crouching like cats,
they purred amid the layers of kimono
swirling around them
as though they were bathing
in a mountain pool with irises
growing in the silken sunlit water.
Or poised like porcelain vases,
slender, erect and tall; their heavy
brocaded hair was piled high
with sandalwood combs and blossom sprigs
poking out like antennae.
They resembled beautiful iridescent insects,
creatures from a floating world.
Utamaro absorbed these women of Edo
in their moments of melancholy
as well as of beauty.
He captured the wisp of shadows,
the half-draped body
emerging from a bath; whatever
skin was exposed
was powdered white as snow.
A private space disclosed.
Portraying another girl
catching a glimpse of her own vulnerable
face in the mirror, he transposed
the trembling plum lips
like a drop of blood
soaking up the white expanse of paper.
At times, indifferent to his inconsolable
eye, the women drifted
through the soft gray feathered light,
maintaining stillness, the moments in between.
Like the dusty ash-winged moths
that cling to the screens in summer
and that the Japanese venerate
as ancestors reincarnated;
Utamaro graced these women with immortality
in the thousand sheaves of prints
fluttering into the reverent hands of keepers:
the dwarfed and bespectacled painter
holding up to a square of sunlight
what he had carried home beneath his coat
one afternoon in winter.
A Hawaiian of Chinese and Korean ancestry, Cathy Song centers her verse on island themes and activities and understated pastoral settings. Her language is Standard English inset with words and phrases from Pacific and Asian sources. She has gained credence for lifting the mundane from homely backgrounds to produce a lyric strangeness offset by teasing and, at times, startling analogies.
The poem “Beauty and Sadness” is one of the poems in Cathy Song’s collection “Picture Bride” (1983). It illustriously paints a picture of how Kitagawa Utamaro, a painter of the Edo period in Japan’s history, perceived, and was able to achieve, the fragility of that period’s women in his paintings. Song expresses her own interpretations of his artworks, of the elegant yet often despondent female subjects of his paintings in her poem. By making use of poetic form and metaphorical language, she lays an emphasis on both the attractiveness and the misery of these women.
The “quick, nimble man” in the poem is depicted as an unseen presence. The images stress fragility in “skin-like paper” and “fleeting loveliness,” the source of the poem’s melancholy. The second stanza masses luxuriant images of sight, smell, and touch that transform women into “beautiful iridescent insects, / creatures from a floating world.” The mood begins a downward sweep in the third stanza as the models display an outer beauty balanced by melancholy. The trembling lip takes on the surface tension of a blood droplet, a comparison that tops vulnerable veins with a transparent skin of female elegance.
In the concluding stanza, the poet’s delicate picture sequence captures both the act of sketching loveliness and the brief moment of pose that strikes the artist’s eye. Although Song dedicates the work to the artist, her verse speaks for the women. Untouched by Utamaro, they change into “dusty ash-winged moths”; their indifference and emotional withdrawal separates them from artistic technique.
The poem studies the femininity and vulnerability as a mutual or reciprocal relationship. It is the vulnerability of women that makes them so beautiful. Their delicate nature makes us appreciate them but they are inherently sad. These women realize that their beauty is the only aspect that matters to the outside world while inside, they are left to be nothing, haunted by the fear that one day, their beauty, and thus their being, might be lost. They are fully defined by what they seem to be, not what they are. They are women for men, geishas, courtesans, described as incredibly virgin when clearly they are actually not.
The beauty of the women – the “teahouse waitresses, actresses, geishas, courtesans and maids,” is illustrated throughout the poem. The list suggests a sense of abundance, and when “they arrange themselves” before Utamaro, the women seem to be forming an endless line. Their femininity is stressed through lush images of touch, sight in the line “slender, erect and tall” and smell in the line “with sandalwood combs.” Conversely, only a few references are made on the artist himself, and in a way, this reflects his “invisible presence”. Indeed, the women treat him as so, and Song points this out in this line – “At times, [they are] indifferent to his inconsolable eye”. However, in the third stanza, Song implies that Utamaro is not the only person suffering. The comparison of the model’s “trembling plum lips” to a “drop of blood” conjures an image of vulnerability, as if she is afraid to have her “private space disclosed.” While completely contradictory, both the elements of “melancholy/ as well as of beauty” is echoed from the beginning to the end. Song’s selection of specific words and vowel sounds contributes to the melancholy atmosphere that pervades this piece. Soft, consonant sounds dominate and are repeatedly used, especially the “oo” and “o” vowels, such as “poised like porcelain vases”. Combined together with long sentences, this creates an almost somber effect. There is no particular form either, the structure is not conventional and the stanza and line lengths are irregular. For instance, Song suddenly quickens the pace in line – “A private space disclosed” – a full non-sentence. There is unevenness in the use of end-line punctuation too; Song preferring to keep her lines moving. This lack of regularity in line length, end line punctuation, rhyme and rhythm adds to the feeling of continuity, and allows the emotion in the poem to flow unimpeded.
Interestingly, Song refers to the women as “resemble[ing] beautiful iridescent insects”, and this comparison recurs many times. While this surprises us – few in our society would agree that insects are attractive; it implies that the women are foreign and exotic. Song takes this metaphor further when she later describes the “blossom sprigs” in the women’s hair as “poking out like antennae”. Another allusion is made to insects in the last stanza, where Song draws parallels between the women and “dusty ash-winged moths”. Song emphasizes that the women are part of a culture completely different from our own through her use of imagery, even suggesting that the women are alien-like and “creatures from a floating world”.
Unlike the women that he paints, the character of Utamaro is less stable and develops as the seasons go by. At first, Utamaro is said to be “quick [and] nimble”, adjectives that seem unsuitable for an artist, but rather for an athlete. As time goes by and winter comes, he is described as a “dwarfed and bespectacled painter”, a stark contrast to the nimble man we were presented at the start of the poem. In fact, the image of Utamaro “holding up … what he had carried home beneath his coat” is almost one of a dirty old man, hardly a man who possessed such skill in capturing a woman’s “fleeting loveliness”.
Kitagawa Utamaro depicted women who, despite of their beauty, all have an air of helplessness about them. This became the subject of Cathy Song which created stories related to Utamaro’s works. Having reasoned that the painter led a miserable life, she created a common thread between the painter and these women in the paintings. Through the issues raised, about the women’s vulnerability, it is evident that she considered their unhappiness stemmed-out from the life of subservience that they were habitually subjected to.
Although dedicated to Utamaro, Song’s “Beauty and Sadness” does not focus only on him and his achievements, but explores the multiple facets of his character, his subjects and his prints. Utamaro’s prints, with their power and ability to “grace these women with immortality”, is depicted by Song as also being fragile, and the conflict of these two ideas is essentially what “Beauty and Sadness” is all about.