One of the greatest rewards of having spent seven years in graduate school is seeing some of my former peers and close friends publish extraordinary work. This past week Leslie St. John published a little book of poems called Beauty Like a Rope: it has already become dear to my heart. The poems are so delicately and beautifully crafted. And they hurt. I've always loved the rare poem that causes me to ache in some way. I hope we see more and more from Leslie.
One poem, "She Washed My Hair," gives an autobiographical account of a traumatic moment in the poet's life. Years ago her eye was hit by a cd tossed into the crowd at a concert. She ultimately lost the eye and now wears a prosthetic (though it's virtually impossible to discern this now; Leslie is quite lovely). But the poem captures the beginning of her healing process, and toward the end describes an intimate moment between the poet and her mother:
after Mom raised my lid to drop medicine,
she washed my hair,
untangling rusted screw curls, not with force
as she had after dance recitals
and ice skating competitions, but with care--
a jeweler unknotting a thin gold chain
rubbing each kink smooth.
Her small hand supported my head
dangling from the foot of the bed,
the other tipping an iced tea pitcher
of water to rinse the shampoo.
So, how to tell her now--
twelve years, two states, one husband,
and three prosthetic eyes later--
she made me feel even this loss as love?
To feel the loss as love. Washing someone's hair, allowing someone to wash one's hair: it's is a peculiar kind of intimacy. And the intimacy is so much more complex when it takes place between a mother and a daughter.
My own mother, one day last week, told me a story about washing her own mother's hair. My grandmother has Alzheimer's disease, and it goes without saying that this condition is one of the most barbaric afflictions. The way it wraps its horror around all those in proximity to its victim is startling. No one in the victim's orbit remains unscathed, even if it is only by virtue of being the recipient of a blank stare: I don't know who you are. Because all we ever want is to be known. And if we have felt known, perhaps it is more painful to experience the process of being un-known.