She began by mixing a pail of dye
in the museum, with care, not a splash
blemished the polished concrete floor. Some guy
arrived late, had to step around the trash—
little plastic bottles, cardboard boxes
made significant, transformed into art
by context. Such incongruity shocked us
less and less; we, the audience, were part
of a faithful tribe looking for the next
revelation, a new form beyond paint,
past brushes. She (Janine) knelt, her feet flexed,
leaned over the bucket. Her gasp was faint
as she dipped headfirst in Natural Black.
She wrung her hair with gloved hands. We stepped back.
She wrings her hair with gloved hands, says, "Step back."
In memory I'm six, and underfoot.
She (Eileen) reaches for the towel rack,
rubber fingers tipped the color of soot,
and turns to the mirror to wrap her head
in a rag we use for dyes and rinses,
not to mention permanent waves. I dread
those Tonettes, yet somehow she convinces
me to give my hair a rococo curl.
I'm next: perm rods, solution, another
wait. She loves dolling up her youngest girl
and I endure the fuss; she's my mother.
When it's done, I look and think, "Is that me?"
Gazing in the glass—secret vanity.
Gazing in the glass. Fifty. Vanity
has migrated, relocated to my hand
as it renders (Is this insanity?)
elusive darks and lights. When my eyes scan
their own shadows and light in the mirror,
the lines that matter most are on the page.
Drawing is first a verb—action—nearer
to deed than thing, the paper is a stage
that's small, and, at first, intensely private.
In this and every piece, I try to get
it right, see myself whole, with accurate
marks, honest and economical; yet
in looking for what's next, I lose my place
and can't see what's right in front of my face.
Janine couldn't see in front of her face
for the hair dye had seeped into her eyes.
She accepted a clean towel with grace
and wiped away the sting. One can't revise
performance art, we who watched this moment
embraced the glitch—it fed our romance
with the unplanned effect, the eloquent
accident, modern theater of chance.
Soon clear-eyed and swift, Janine fell prostrate
and swung her head, both mopping and messing
the cool floor with her liquid hair. The weight
of her painterly strokes was a blessing
to us, who feel art's power, never doubt
its sleight of hand, hear it whisper, speak, shout.
A slight shift of my hand—whisper, don't shout,
Mama—under her head—Is this good? I asked.
Better, not good, she said—a lift, about
ten degrees: I altered the angle, masked
her pain for short minutes by adjusting
her bed-stiffened neck. It didn't help much.
What were the chances she'd go on trusting
me? A nurse arrived with a lighter touch,
undressed Eileen for a bath. The unmarked
skin on her breasts and belly was like new,
shielded from the sun; thoughts of the beach sparked
intense images in a rambling review.
I brushed her thinning white hair. No more dye.
Done, she slept. That's how we said good-bye.
Done. We just left, that's how we said good-bye.
In truth, Janine mopped us out of the room,
our backs to the door, with thick lines of dye
scrawled in an arena where ideas bloom,
expressive, but not exactly abstract.
Think hair as a medium for washing;
Fifties painting as a domestic act;
Natural Black, her mother's shade, sloshing
across a blank gray ground, a subversion
of manly art on a heroic scale.
Released, we became I's, a conversion
to an inner space where I mapped my trail
of allusions through this piece by Janine:
part Magdalene, part Pollock, part Eileen.
The Magdalene. Jackson Pollock. Eileen.
In the mirror I'm fifty, wringing grace
from broken lines. I'm mixing, like Janine,
hoping this slight of hand leaves little trace
of my vanity. Gazing in the glass
at the skin on my breasts and belly, vain
or not, I keep working, a dark morass
of marks on blank ground, thinking I'm insane
because what does this mean? Heroic acts
are everywhere—in a nurse's light touch,
the mopping of floors—but can I exact
an equal courage from the page? It's such
a mystery, despite the trail--how, why,
this began by mixing a pail of dye.