American Life in Poetry: Tonsure

Kwame Dawes. Courtesy photo.

The monk’s ton­sure is inten­tion­al, a shaved bald spot as part of the rit­u­als of sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, but here, in his poem, ​“Ton­sure,” Kevin Young sees this hered­i­tary mark­er as a com­plex sign of the things a man inher­its from his father, the dif­fi­cult, the beau­ti­ful, and, most pow­er­ful­ly, the part that repeats itself when he becomes a father, too.

Young​’s col­lec­tions are always an occa­sion, as is his next book, “Stones” (2021), in which this poem appears.

By Kevin Young

Forever you find
your father
in other faces—

a balding head
or beard enough
to send you following

for blocks after
to make sure
you’re wrong, or buying

some stranger a beer
to share. Well, not
just one—and here,

among a world that mends
only the large things,
let the shadow grow

upon your face
till you feel
at home. It’s all

yours, this father
you make
each day, the one

you became when yours
got yanked away.
Take your place between

the men bowed
at the bar, the beer
warming, glowing faint

as a heart: lit
from within & just
a hint bitter.

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2020 by Kevin Young, “Tonsure”, from Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2020. Forthcoming in Stones (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.) Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2021 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Kwame Dawes, is George W. Holmes Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.