Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It ran from June 26 to July 1, featuring 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting them on a semi-regular basis until they’re done. Wales does not have an official place in the Olympiad, so I’m presenting one on her behalf. Please visit the poet’s website, since I’m reproducing the poem without permission.
The Theology of Hair, by Menna Elfyn (Wales)
I The Theology of Hair
I came before you with simple plaits,
a long-legged maid, a lass who couldn’t care less
that her sheaves were all bound up with ribbons,
for wasn’t the hair on my head like the hair which foamed
over the hard pew-back with a rustle like rivers,
drops shivering as it arced and fell
over the communion shelf, and I ached to touch it,
to twine it in patterns, to fill up that hour
by reaching out to a girlish wonder.
It made me think of summers full of imaginary ponies
galloping after me, taking my breath away
as I cantered over hills, and the banditti-like bangs
outlawed their way over my cheeks. There were arguments,
but I loved my hair’s energy. Golden moss
like maidenhair stroked my skin, longing to escape
and sometimes, obediently, regally, I would tease
a kiss-curl like honeysuckle over one cheek.
Why that fate for it? To this day, youth loves
the life-force of hair, the way it kinks a little.
Was it the secret forests in it which fuddled the ones above?
They called it a dark thicket.
And yet, 0 Holy Spirit, didn’t you give us the gift
of praising it, this headful of hair. This full crown, these tresses,
to be prettily dressed? What harm could there be
in this crinkly, kissable harvest? They imagined it
tumbling over naked backs, charging desire. But cropping –
a full stop to lust’s sentence? Locks tied back from breasts.
To leash passion, there was a hair-wreck.
I washed up on a deserted and sensuous strand.
II Crowning Glory
(for Maura Dooley)
A headful of hair was a girl’s crowning glory.
It made her hair stand on end
to see the paradise of it fan over her nape,
a stubborn standard waving on the wind.
As for me, I was a roundhead,
one of the new model army of hair-straighteners,
those who laboured, late at night
titivating it with criss-crossed clips
until it waved. Anointing it with mousse to perk it up,
torturing myself by night
on a pillow of rollers,
then waking to the combing-out
and a faint foam of curl
hanging limply over one ear.
Meanwhile, my curly-headed friend
was ironing her stormy tresses,
running steel over smooth sheets,
her wild tendrils safely trussed up in brown paper,
the scorch of her mane scenting her nostrils.
Her waves a strong current, she crimped on against the tide,
a cruel scalping.
The little histories of hair are untold:
its bounciness. The pain it brings,
until its owner comes to accept it,
this fringe between sisters.
Their only ambition is to trim our sails.
III A God-Problem
Because of my crown, I came to doubt the Word,
and the power of trichologians
to trim it.
They sheared long curls of mortality
with their razors and knives.
A flock of goats on the mountains of Gilead.
Her hair is like unto a mantle of porphyry.
If a woman should go bare-headed, she shall be shorn,
and if this step
be distasteful to her, she shall be shaved as well.
Should a woman be dragged by her hair to a fold
as a lamb to the slaughter? By shepherds? Were they bald?
Standing before your altar,
in my worst nightmares, I see
a woman, shorn, being drowned as a witch,
each single hair plucked out;
another girl reaches out to her,
she is tarred and feathered in dark stains;
she turns into Esther, offers shit and mud
instead of rare perfumes.
Jesus, what would you say today
to women who wear veils?
Is there a place for us in your sanctum?
We long to hear that story
again and again. The one about a sinner.
You let her dry your feet
with the unfettered beauty of her hair
and nobody stopped her. Nobody.
IV Mother Tongue
The old language between mother and daughter.
At times of sickness, she’d be there,
her palm flat on my forehead,
chasing a curl away,
kneading the fever which frothed in my hair,
stroking it until I fell asleep.
on the good days, too, when I’d grown older,
it made me cringe to the marrow of my bones
when she tidied my hair
as if I were a rag doll.
I avoided her hand, cold as steel, sudden lightning.
Now I realize at last what it was:
the old language between mother and daughter,
a lingerpost to love in a lock.
It is like holding a seed’s past,
that touch, in a naked world,
of a strand of curly gold,
the emblem of my pride,
each strand on your brow rejoicing.
And yes, my loved one, one day
when your hair is white,
you will crave the hair’s breadth of breath,
the fruit of your flesh.
God himself dressed Eve’s hair that the first woman
might better please the first man.
– JEWISH LEGEND.
And he dressed her with cornfields of hair
gathering their ripeness, neat sheaves about her face.
Isn’t this our first detailed glimpse of creation?
Fastidious God in his parlour at the edge of Eden
tenderly working over her shoulders,
humming a song as he fashioned the honeycomb,
her curls laden one moment with murmuring bees,
the next bursting bubbles of dew-rain,
strung dock-leaves worked into ringlets of gold
about her, oiling her hair with aloe in a new-made paradise.
Brief kiss-curls, some lipped and longlasting
singing like bluebells on her nape, some bongo drums,
areca shells cast in the forest’s dark night.
Spit-curled, fingers running straight furrows
on her head, bound and ribboned with a second cloth of pride.
He created a marvel. How he went on and on
before he let her look, with a duckpond mirror behind
and a hollow-tree pool mirror in front. That last touch
before fussing small hairs away with the brush of his hand.
Adam came by, stunned by the clusters of raspberries
ripe for the tasting. He sat in her tree chair
and instead of expressing delight he asked for service,
craving a crown to match hers.
So for two thousand years he let his stone blade
rust. Left creation without a beauty-parlour.
Because of the hair-splitting human gripe about beauty
he gave his son a satirical crown of thorns
for man’s ingratitude, planted stubble and hedge
on his chin, in his nose, in his ears, and let him
grow balder as long as he lived for his jealous greed for hair,
just a rim, just enough to go round
the edge of his hairless skull
to remind him of the first fool
who brought down snake-spit on his head.
This poem celebrates the sensuous allure of hair while exploring its negative theological connotations. Yet in the beginning, God became a hairdresser, giving Eve a crowning glory made up of the wonders of the world. Adam’s sin is that he does not marvel at God’s handiwork, instead “craving a crown to match hers.” For which he is struck with baldness and bitterness, so that his descendants come to hate women’s hair, and God makes his own son wear “a satirical crown of thorns.” A brilliant intertwining of two strands of thought.