[from Tess Gallagher’s Dear Ghosts, 2006]
The Women of Auschwitz
were not treated so well as I.
I am haunted by their shorn heads,
their bodies more naked for this
as they stumble against each other
in those last black-and-white
moments of live footage.
Before she cuts the braid
Teresa twines the red ribbon
bordered with gold into my hair.
The scissors stutter against the thick
black hank of it, though for its part,
the hair is mute.
When it was done
to them they stood next to each other.
Maybe they leaned
into each other’s necks afterwards. Or
simply gazed back with the incredulity
of their night-blooming souls.
Something silences us.
Even the scissors, yawing at
the anchor rope, can’t find their sound.
They slip against years as if they were bone.
I recall an arm-thick rope I saw in China
made entirely of women’s hair, used to anchor
a ship during some ancient war
when hemp was scarce.
At last the blades come together
like the beak of a metallic stork,
delivering me into my new form.
The braid-end fresh and bloodless.
Preempting the inevitable,
Teresa uses the clippers to buzz off
the rest. Breath by plover-breath, hair
falls to my shoulders, onto the floor, onto
my feet, left bare for this occasion.
As the skull comes forward,
as the ghost ship
of the cranium, floating
in its newborn ferocity, forces through,
we are in no doubt: the helm
of death and the helm of life
are the same, each craving light.
She sweeps the clippings onto the dust pan
and casts them from the deck
into the forest. Then, as if startled awake,
scrambles down the bank
to retrieve them, for something live
attaches to her sense of hair, after
a lifetime cutting it.
I am holding nothing back.
Besides hair, I will lose toenails, fingernails,
eyelashes and a breast to the ministrations
of medicine. First you must make
the form, Setouchi-san tells me, explaining
why the heads of Buddhist nuns are shaved.
The shape is choosing me, simplifying,
shaving me down to essentials,
and I go with it. Those women
of Auschwitz who couldn’t choose—
Meanwhile the war plays out
in desert cities, the news shorn of images
of death and dismemberment.
I make visible the bare altar
of the skull.
Time is deepened. Space
more intimate than
I guessed. I run my hand over
the birth-moment I attend sixty years
after. I didn’t know the women
would be so tender. Teresa takes my
photograph in Buddha Alcove, as if to prove
the passage has been safe. Holly, Jill, Dorothy,
Alice, Suzie, Chana, Debra, Molly and Hiromi offer flowers
and a hummingbird pendant, letting me know
they are with me. My sister
is there and Rijl.
I feel strangely gentled, glimpsing
myself in the mirror, the artifact
of a country’s lost humility.
My moon-smile, strange and far,
refuses to belong to the cruelties
of ongoing war. I am like a madwoman
who has been caught eating pearls—softly radiant,
about to illuminate a vast savanna, ready
to work a miracle with everything left to her.