The Shampoo (From The Nightingales) by David Wojahn
How long it must have been, the girl’s hair,
cascading down her shoulders almost to her waist,
light brown and heavy as brocade: the story I’m
remembering of N’s, remembering as my own
hair’s washed and cut, the salt-and-pepper
cuneiform to frill my barber’s smock.
Arts and Science is expanding. The wall
to the empty shop next door pulled down
and a dozen workmen slink improbably
on scaffolds butting the dusty ceiling,
cacophony and plastic tarps, the whirr
of drills that mingles with the dryers’
jittery hums, the scissors’ flash,
veronicas of clicks, the coloring, the curling,
the antique cash register,
melodious with its chime. And best,
the liquid gurgle of hands massaging scalps
the row of sinks, twelve hands and six
wet scalps in a line. I’m next, and leaning back
(let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon)
to the hiss of warm water cataracts
and Andrea’s long fingers. But I’m remembering
the girl in N’s story, the girl
she was at six. This is Birmingham,
1962, Rapunzel-tressed girl
whose parents are more glimpsed than known,
the Family Romance, mid-century American-
style, the child fetching ice
for the father’s drink, the far-off lovely
scent of mother’s perfume. More glimpsed
than known, separate phantom lights
edging from beneath closed doors
those nights she couldn’t sleep. Not the Birmingham
of sit-ins, the firehoses trained on
placard-waving crowds. But the Birmingham
of Saturdays when Anne-Marie would arrive
as always on the city bus by six,
before the parents’ cars would pull away.
Then the cleaning until noon, the cooking smells.
And then the big tin basin filled
at the backyard faucet by Anne-Marie,
the long brown fingers in the child’s hair,
the water sluicing, warm from the garden hose,
the soap suds almost flaring, the fingers
ten spokes over scalp and basin, their paths
through the hair and down the child’s back,
the synesthetic grace notes of the hands,
the stitchery, the trill, the body electric,
the fingertip pressure exquisite as it sings,
the braille of here and here and here.
David Wojahn, “The Shampoo (from ‘The Nightingales’)” from The Falling Hour. 1997.
Narrative poems like this one exasperate confuse and (increasingly) infuriate me.
First of all, what's Wojahn doing in this hair salon getting his hair shampooed, why doesn't he just shampoo it at home in the shower like most people? He seems to be a regular customer here, since he knows the hairstylist by name (line 23) . . .
In other words, he's doing something most of us don't do, and in reality
most people can't afford to have their hair shampooed at a salon,
he's doing something unusual but he doesn't acknowlege that fact, nor does he offer any justification for this abnormal practice——he's not a moviestar for chrisakes, so why—whatfor?
The poem is from a 1997 book, so presumably this hairparlor scene occurs in the mid '90s, in retrospect a kind of golden age of prosperity for some if not most in the US, post-Cold War surplus and surfeit, the Clinton years of flush expenditures—
the salon's business is booming, its chairs are filled (lines 18/19),
profits are rife and Professor Wojahn can you blame him wants to look as prosperous and spif as your average tv-anchor,
coiffed to the max—
How long it must have been, the girl’s hair, [WHAT GIRL? WHERE?]
cascading down her shoulders almost to her waist, [CASCADING? CASCADING? YOU'RE REALLY GOING TO USE THAT WORD?]
light brown and heavy as brocade:[CASCADE/BROCADE: I GET IT] the story I’m
remembering of N’s, [N? WHO THE FUCK IS N? N? WHY AREN'T YOU TELLING ME WHO N IS?] remembering as my own
hair’s washed and cut, the salt-and-pepper
cuneiform [CUNEIFORM? CUNEIFORM? YOU'RE REALLY GOING TO USE THAT WORD TO DESCRIBE YOUR HAIR CLIPPINGS? JESUS CHRIST FUCK A DUCK HOW PRETENTIOUS CAN YOU GET] to frill my barber’s smock.
—on the poem goes, throwing in these absurd words, absurd because wrenched out of any authentic context and used to hype up/poeticize the content:
"veronicas of clicks" etcet . . .
Veronica: a word used in bullfighting, the term for a particular cape-move by the matador, transformed here by Wojahn to describe the thrusts of the scissors as they cut (lines 13, 14):
which makes Wojahn the bull, and Andrea his stylist the toreador about to impale him:
cuneiform / bull . . . it's positively Minoan. Ancient sacrificial rites in Cretan caves . . . (is that where the "nightingales" comes in, from Greek mythology?)
And where's the "story" these first few inept "set-up" lines have promised? when does the poem get to that story,
and what the hell happens in that story? Hunh? "N"
[AND, AGAIN: WHO THE FUCK IS THIS "N" ANYWAY? FOR CRYSAKE, WOJAHN, IS THIS POEM EVER GOING TO TELL ME WHO "N" IS?]
told a story about what?——
"the Family Romance, mid-century American- / style, the child fetching ice / for the father’s drink, the far-off lovely // scent of mother’s perfume."
How many cliche phrases can you pack into one sentence, how much flat prose can you stick into one poem, but is THAT the "story"?
No, no, that's not it, the poem is more than half over,
and the "story" it's promised in the beginning has still not appeared, so what is the "story"?——
AND WHEN IS THE STORY GOING TO START!
—why would any reader put up with such indirection and procrastination?—
I give up. Is THIS the goddamn story:
on Saturday nights Anne Marie would wash my hair
——is THAT the "story" told by "N"?
—the "story" told to Wojahn by the mysterious "N" on what occasion I wonder, I'm trying to imagine the scene where Wojahn and "N" are swapping shampoo memories . . .
And why the hell is the poem so duplicitous in its narrative: why does it make the reader think for half of its length that "the girl" and "N" are two separate characters (and to confuse things even more, we have "Andrea" in line 19)——
what's the point of misleading us like that?
—Why are "Andrea" and "Anne Marie" spelled out as whole names, and "N" is only an initial: what's the point? What does that mean? What is the goddamn significance of that? What does Wojahn want the reader to understand about this difference in nomenclature—? It must be important, it's too blatant to be an oversight . . .
I give up.
The 3rd and 4th stanzas, are they nonsequitir: that "Art and Science" building, presumably an outreach project of Wojahn's own university, what's it doing here? What's the point? Its construction noises, the "whir of drills" forcing, bulling their way into the act—? What's the message here: 'Observe my power: the architectual thrust of the institutional majesty I represent': another reinforcement, a reiteration of his professorial status, virile blaring expressions of his clout. Look on my works ye mighty and despair—
I hate this poem. Everything in it is specious pretentious and disgusting to me.
. . . the unattributed quote from Elizabeth Bishop in the 7th stanza: arrogant, smarmy, nudge nudge wink wink to the reader, Yes you and I, we know those lines don't we, we the literate—
—I just don't get poems like this. Trivial idle anecdotes, their prosaic plodding lines larded with out of the vestpoetrypocket words like cuneiform and veronicas, stuck in like the raisins in raisinbread,——
fuh! phu! fugh!