Wednesday, 04 October 2023

American Life in Poetry: Mama’s Hair

Kwame Dawes. Courtesy photo.

Poets often have the insight to see, in a sin­gle detail or fea­ture, a com­plex uni­verse of mean­ing. Melis­sa John­son, in ​“Mama’s Hair,” fix­ates on an ordi­nary detail of our lives — the hair that we car­ry around as exten­sions of our skins — to tell a ten­der and painful sto­ry about the rela­tion­ship between a moth­er and a daugh­ter.

Con­tained in this small pock­et of verse are moments of care, regret, guilt, humor, ten­der­ness, ill­ness and hurt that are all trig­gered by a med­i­ta­tion on hair.

Mama’s Hair
By Melissa Johnson

Heavy, slick-straight, black as coal,
Mama’s hair could be pulled
over the headrest as she drove,
gathered and stroked in the back seat.

When she cut it, I thought
it was my fault, maybe she told me so.
Every year she went shorter.
It never passed her nape again.

The last time she reached out to me,
she mimed clipping my curls with scissored
fingers, her mouth determined
as I leaned to lift her back to bed.

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 ©2019 by Melissa Johnson, “Mama’s Hair” from Cancer Voodoo (Diode Editions 2021.) First Published in Nelle, Issue Two, 2019. Introduction copyright ©2022 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.

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