Seeing Red

Matisse owned a painting by Degas –
a girl with red hair having her hair
brushed by a red servant in a red room,
wearing a red dress, her hair by some
painterly miracle clearly separated from
the very nearly same red of the wall.

I looked at Matisse’s Red Studio for years,
wondering what gave him the idea;
when he tried the twenty-three versions,
what made him settle on red? I never
thought someone else had been there first.

But what persuaded Degas in his turn
to make such a glorious painting – his red
more of a hair red, as if he lost himself
in the red of the real girl’s hair? Not
Matisse’s red – pure paint, pure thought,
a red wave of imagination almost
obliterating the real life of the studio.

Perhaps Degas owned a red painting
by a painter who owned a red painting
by a painter who owned a red painting
in an infinite red regression to the first
cave painting or to the first human eye
which beheld the overwhelming red rock,
watched the deepening blue of the sky,
gazed awestruck at the marvel of the rising moon.

This poem refers to the homage to Henri Matisse.