from NER 37.2 (2016)
Only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
—W. B. Yeats, “For Anne Gregory”
Sister, there was nothing left for us.
Down here, this cast-off hour, we listened
but heard no voices in the shells. No beauty.
Our lives already tangled in the violence of our hair,
we learned to feel unwanted in the sea’s blue gaze,
knowing even the blond lichen was considered lovely.
Not us, who combed and tamed ourselves at dawn,
cursing every brute animal in its windy mane—
God forbid all that good hair being grown to waste.
Barber, I can say a true thing or I can say nothing;
meet you in the canerows with my crooked English,
coins with strange faces stamped deep inside my palm,
ask to be remodeled with castaway hair, or dragged
by my scalp through your hot comb. The mirror takes
and the mirror takes. I’ve waded there and waited in vanity;
paid the toll to watch my wayward roots foam white,
drugstore formaldehyde burning through my skin.
For good hair I’d do anything. Pay the price of dignity,
send virgins in India to daily harvest; their miles
of glittering hair sold for thousands in the street.
Still we come to them yearly with our copper coins,
whole nights spent on our knees, our prayers whispered
ear to ear, hoping to wake with soft unfurling curls,
black waves parting strands of honey.
But how were we to know our poverty?
That our mother’s good genes would only come to weeds,
that I would squander all her mulatta luck.
This nigger-hair my biggest malady.
So thick it holds a pencil up.