An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by Catherine Chen

When I was about ten or so, before I began to feel

The burden of education squarely set in, I would

Watch my mother sit at her make-up table before

I left for school every morning. I remember how my

Toes curled in, just a bit, the moment my bare skin

Made contact with the cold bathroom floor. She

Had a brush she’d leave aside for me, and I used to play

With it. “One day, you will learn, too,” she said but

It always seemed a joke. In my mind I was far removed

From the art of being beautiful. It was in the late

Nineties, and denim was making a comeback. My

Mother disliked denim and she wanted me to wear

Wide-brimmed hats, like a New York society woman.

I laughed. She smiled at me with her eyes, a type of

Smile a gossip columnist might call “the Audrey Hepburn”

Or “the Gene Tierney.” My mother had her routine—

She squeezed a white liquid from a tube and gingerly

Spread it across her palms; her eyes, worn, would later

Remind me of a beleaguered prisoner. Using both hands,

She smeared the moisture onto her cheeks in a slow and

Deliberate, circular motioning. I had no idea what any

Of it meant, though I appreciated the gesture. It wasn’t

Until later that I learned she often used a whitening cream,

A phenomenon I had for so long viewed through the

Eyes of a curious bystander, that male executive, the fair

Faire Chinese model with thin sleek arms, the Madonna.

When Yang Guifei sat by the Huaqing pool in the

Earliest of spring days, plucking ripe lychees apart with

Her pearly teeth, she was probably the most beautiful

Woman beneath the eyes of Heaven. This poem could have

Been for her, “Oh Consort, My Consort.” After my mother

Finished, layered anew, I told her how pretty she looked.

Kant often speaks of an a priori knowledge, questioning

As he does, the very nature of reason. Our propensity

For principle is not born from a rip in space, the marble of

The ground never did get any warmer. We get these ideas

About the world, those aesthetics of cleanly labeled bottles,

Those of purity, of injustice, so early in life for a reason.

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