Intro by Kwame Dawes
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.
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 is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), 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. Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2022 by The Poetry Foundation.
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