“Rainbow Sleeves” from The Orchid Door: Ancient Korean Poems

The book online: HTML, PDF

According to Brother Anthony’s site, The Orchid Door is a book of poetry by Joan Grigsby adapted from Korean originals. The poem “Rainbow Sleeves” below is from this collection.

Rainbow Sleeves (Anon.)

Her rainbow sleeves are gay as golden wine
Poured from a silver flask to porcelain bowls.
Between the guests she moves. Their wet lips shine.

Their eyes grow dry and hot as burning coals,
Watching her bend to pour their perfumed wine,
Watching her rainbow sleeves above the bowls.

One gives her amber beads like honeyed light,
Another, coral drops for her to wear
Like folded peach buds in her ears tonight,
While one sets bright blue feathers in her hair.
Gay are her sleeves!
Yet, in the lanterns’ light,
Her face — a peony flower — reveals despair.

The description “rainbow sleeves” recalls the brightly-colored striped sleeves of the traditional Korean women’s hanbok. The fixed cheerfulness of her sleeves is analogous to the joy-inducing quality of the wine she pours. She gives, while her guests, apparently male, consume the wine, as their “wet lips,” suggest.

The guests’ eyes, “dry and hot as burning coals,” suggest their desires for consumption have turned to the server. Their shining lips and burning eyes lend a darkened contrast to the innocent vibe the server projects. Hoping, probably, for favors, the guests bestow the server with sumptuous gifts. The gifts, however, only serve to adorn her beauty and enhance their pleasure in observing her. As “one sets bright blue feathers in her hair,” she is transformed into a bird, albeit a caged one.

The speaker reiterates the woman’s bright sleeves before revealing the “despair” of her “peony flower” face, a condition the false brightness of her adornments and the lewd encroachment of her “guests” has suggested.

The overall situation and “rainbow sleeves” remind me of the old English poem Greensleeves.

A new Courtly Sonnet, of the Ladie Greensleeves.
Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously
And I have lov-ed you so long
Delighting in your companie

(Chorus)Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my Ladie Greensleeves

I have been ready at your hand
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both waged life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.

(Chorus)

I bought thee kerchers to thy head,
That were wrought fine and gallantly
I kept thee both boord and bed
Which cost my purse well favouredly

(Chorus)

I bought thee petticoats of the best,
The cloth so fine as might be;
I gave thee jewels for thy chest,
And all this cost I spent on thee.

The speaker of “Greensleeves” continues to list his expenditures on the lady, who will not bestow favors despite accepting his gifts. Meanwhile, the green of her sleeves suggests gaiety or promiscuity misconstrued by the speaker. In both poems, the woman’s colorful sleeves serve as a false indicator of joy in contrast to her disconnection from the male admirer(s).

Yet, “Greensleeves” retains her independence, while “Rainbow Sleeves” wades through nights of despair. The fixedness of her costume and position suggest that she is locked into her dilemma with no hope of escape.

It also suggests, in a broader sense, the falseness and spiritual barrenness of a society structured entirely around exchange of materials and services.

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Author: Amanda Monteleone

I am an English graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington interested in nineteenth-century American and Japanese poetry, contemporary Korean literature, and the literature of Southeast Asia.

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