The Shampoo (From The Nightingales)

By David Wojahn b. 1953 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. Copyright © 1997. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Source: The Falling Hour (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)

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Poet David Wojahn b. 1953

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects Nature, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, The Body, Race & Ethnicity, The Mind, Mythology & Folklore, Fairy-tales & Legends


Ever since his first collection, Icehouse Lights, was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1981, David Wojahn has been one of American poetry’s most thoughtful examiners of culture and memory. His work often investigates how history plays out in the lives of individuals, and poet Tom Sleigh says that his poems “meld the political and personal in a way that is unparalleled by any living American poet.”

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, The Body, Race & Ethnicity, The Mind, Mythology & Folklore, Fairy-tales & Legends

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

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