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By Cathy Song

To prepare the body,

aim for the translucent perfection

you find in the sliced shavings

of a pickled turnip.

In order for this to happen,

you must avoid the sun,

protect the face

under a paper parasol

until it is bruised white

like the skin of lilies.

Use white soap

from a blue porcelain

dish for this.


Restrict yourself.

Eat the whites of things:

tender bamboo shoots,

the veins of the young iris,

the clouded eye of a fish.


Then wrap the body,

as if it were a perfumed gift,

in pieces of silk

held together with invisible threads

like a kite, weighing no more

than a handful of crushed chrysanthemums.

Light enough to float in the wind.

You want the effect

of koi moving through water.


When the light leaves

the room, twist lilacs

into the lacquered hair

piled high like a complicated shrine.

There should be tiny bells

inserted somewhere

in the web of hair

to imitate crickets

singing in a hidden grove.


Reveal the nape of the neck,

your beauty spot.

Hold the arrangement.

If your spine slacks

and you feel faint,

remember the hand-picked flower

set in the front alcove,

which, just this morning,

you so skillfully wired into place.

How poised it is!

Petal and leaf

curving like a fan,

the stem snipped and wedged

into the metal base—

to appear like a spontaneous accident.


Cathy Song, “Ikebana” from Picture Bride. Copyright © 1983 by Cathy Song. Reprinted with the permission of Yale University Press.

Source: Picture Bride (Yale University Press, 1983)

  • Activities
  • Living
  • Nature

Poet Bio

Cathy Song
Cathy Song's poetry vividly evokes the flora and fauna of her native Hawaii while meditating on her identity as an Asian woman. (The title poem of Picture Bride (1983) tells the story of her grandmother, brought to the islands from Korea as a “mail-order” spouse; the theme of family relations recurs in her work.) She has also written poems inspired by the artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Kitagawa Utamaro; her fine eye for the telling detail and her own relative invisibility in her poems recall Elizabeth Bishop. See More By This Poet

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