August 2002

Terri Witek


Terri Witek's chapbook, Courting Couples, won the 2000 Center for Book Arts prize and a collection, Fools and Crows, is forthcoming from Orchises Press. Her book about Robert Lowell's revisions, Robert Lowell and Life Studies: Revising the Self, appeared from University of Missouri Press in 1993. 
Women Combing Their Hair  

It is essential to do the same subject over again,
ten times, a hundred times...
Degas to Bartholme

No Apollo with his raging, empty cart.
The day's a gauzy shoreline plumbed and squared

so the sea can be reframed here as a sturdy table
crammed with loot: a scribble of eel-like ribbon,

a bottle without a note, a mirror-back (the glass,
turned down, records a restless turquoise)

and one plate that could easily have dropped
from a passing boat and by now is smoothed with salt,

reusable. A bowl and jug sail past, a humble joke.
Gold walls beat down. Two women work in silence,

a bourgeoise drowned in a hazy gown whose hair
drifts backwards toward a sterner archetype

who stands aloof to watch the billows mend,
or, on those mornings when the other's tresses

seem more like horizon pulled too near,
begins to rake with a gilded, slanted stare.

She's late, will wield the comb herself. But braids
have loosened everywhere—that the mirror's become
one stiff, brown-handled curl seems fair,
but a smudged patch of floor lies out of reach,
an animal wafts through her on mahogany air,
and what's laid out (a drifty sheath) seems flimsier
than what she's wearing. Do these thoughts
so hurt her head she feels compelled to bend
and clasp it? Is it that when the last dark lock's
pinned back and up she'll simply vanish? Or that
her favorite Chinese vase, now flowerless, still wears
the patient, pooched-out belly of another woman,
one who offers the set's last sturdy cup,
into which night has been dropped like too-little antidote?

The truce between ribbon-sleeved efficiency and disabille
is off when both unpin their figure-of-eightish whorls,

step away from their skirts to lounge in slips.
We're not even sure what time of day upends

this odd, fin-de-siecle room (orange quilts and bolts
the iron bedstead) but it seems undone as they are,

perhaps as young, when the redhead squares her stance
and sweeps her hair forward, curtaining her face

so her friend can chase its fire down her own pale arm.
They'll work the usual knot between them,

what an older woman might suggest could be hidden by a hat
or wound into a sleek, soon-to-be chic chignon,

while an older one still would insist it should be featured,
like a classic, persimmon-colored brooch.

Her bed has been absconded with, as has her room,
her gown and friend, though the way she was drawn
originally has left behind the halo of another woman
(or maybe this is only the ghost of her own head
bobbing as she works). She's a woman of predicaments
but busy, naked, as traceable as a signature.
Still, what moves within and without her, though similar
and plainly marked, flaunt opacity like a pearl of doubt
and only her downstroking comb reminds us
that at any time now the auburn torrent will reach her toes
and be transposed into a burnished flight of stairs
she might then climb easily, being so at home,
arriving dry and unannounced at the same sly thought
that still dangles from her foot in one red slipper.



Terri Witek: Poetry
Copyright © 2002 The Cortland Review Issue 21The Cortland Review