Monday, November 27, 2006

"When I Cut My Hair"


when I cut my hair
at thirty-five
Grandma said she'd forgive me
for cutting it
without her permission

but I cried out everytime
I touched my head
years from then
and Grandma dead
it came back to me last night when
you said you wanted it all
your rich body grounding me safe
the touch of your hair
took me out
I saw pigeon feathers
red wool
and fur

and it wrapped me
with the startled past
so sudden
your hair falling all around us

I touched center
and forgave myself

by Rayna Green


Rayna Green is a Cherokee poet, editor and Director of the American Indian Program at the Smithsonian Institution.

This poem exemplifies very well what Malika Booker, who was in KL last week to perform and conduct workshops, described as the "narrow and deep" approach to writing a poem, which I interpret as the poet zooming in on a particular memory and excavating it, in writing, in its contextual and consequential entirety. According to Malika, this "narrow and deep" approach should reveal four things: "I", incident, epiphany and emotion. Thus, the "I" in "When I Cut My Hair" is quite clearly located in the first-person narrative, the incident is what a lover says and how it reminds her of her grandmother and the cutting of her own hair, and the epiphany is the fact that years later, she is able to forgive herself for that act.

But what I want to discuss is emotion.

This poem speaks to me, primarily, because it is a perfect rendering of the idea that the personal is political. Rather than treat multiculturalism and the loss of heritage in an objective and polemic manner, these issues are dealt with via the telling of a private story. While we do not know why she chose to do it, the poet/persona cut her hair at the age of 35, anticipating the chagrin of her grandmother. However, her grandmother says she will forgive her, and perhaps unexpectedly, it's the poet/persona's own guilt that is the hardest to bear. She carries this inner conflict for years, long after her grandmother passes away, until finally, a lover's words lift the burden away from her, allow her to let it go.

Traditionally, Cherokee women wore their hair long, cutting it only as a sign of mourning. Thus, the poet/persona's cutting of her hair was not as simple a thing as choosing a different style. Because the act in itself would mean a rejection of a fundamental cultural tenet, and because the poet no doubt is politically aware, it is a choice that is not without consequence. What she only comes to see later, however, is that the greatest consequence was the blame she inflicted on her self. Coming from a background where women's hair is an equally potent symbol (I trace maternal ancestry to the cult of Draupadi, who swore to leave her hair unbound until the day she could wash it in the blood of the man who wronged her, in defiance of social norms that equate unbound hair to unbound, unbuoyed women), I can understand the guilt that must have plagued the poet. If I may make a comparison, it is not unlike a woman from an Islamic background choosing to remove her burqa or hijab. In the modern world, a world in which we are losing, inch by precious inch, our links to our roots, it can be a deeply painful, even regrettable (as the poet illustrates) choice to make.

Particularly moving, also, is Green's way of showing us how we do, ultimately, retain our traditions: in loving. "it came back/ to me last night when/ you said you wanted it all/ your rich body grounding me safe/ the touch of your hair/ took me out/ I saw pigeon feathers/ red wool/ and fur// and it wrapped me/ with the startled past/ so sudden/ your hair falling all around us" she writes, in a richly detailed description of the moment preceding the catharsis that follows: "I touched center/and forgave myself". I know I cannot be speaking only for myself when I say that the desire to want to be loved in one's own language, in the manner that one's ancestors did, to be looked at in that aesthetic sense, is probably a universal longing. To have that, even once, is something many of us can only dream of. In this poem, experiencing this is doubly powerful: not only does she return to that secret, ancestral self with the touch of her lover's hair, she also finally finds what she needs to accept that she can still be that self, even despite the sacrilege she has committed.

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Nice. This poem deals intimately with the dilemma or conflict of one's myriad identities or place in today's world.

What is it like to feel the filial pull and rootedness of one's cultural traditions and pasts, while necessary being part of an ever expanding and ever changing global cultural landscape that draws out both internal and external choices of staying faithful, adapting or 'compromising', or even discarding? I doubt that this or any other poem can point definitively to a 'right' way or answer, and that this would have to be a personal journey, as captured in this poem. Yet, the personal being political also shows itself in our world, as we see the various cultural wars being fought over words, relationships, communities, policies and even with guns and violence.

What interests me in this poem is the grandmother's rather tacit or 'resigned' forgiveness which perhaps elicits the poet's deep sorrow (as signalled by "without her permission") and the release and forgivenes experienced later, after the grandmother's passing.

I feel there is ambiguity as to who the "you" is in the poem, especially since it is not revealed explicitly. For me, the "you" need not be a lover, though there are good reasons to think so, and would like to propose the possibility of "you" being the spirit of the grandmother or the poet's own mother. I guess this reading draws from the culturally emblematic imagery used and the ambiguity of what "it" means.

6:14 PM, November 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

brilliant poem. i liked it mucho. thank you sharanya.

11:55 PM, December 02, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

sorry i'm so long posting a comment sharanya. i carried the poem with me a while to read and reread. my first reaction was to smile because is saw you and your long hair.

i didn't read your comments until i'd read the poem through a few times - was intrigued by the cultural context (in which society would you need a grandmother's permission to cut hair?)... and learning that it was cherokee, was intrigued. i guess in many societies you would feel guilty for having gone against old ways.

glad you wrote about malika's workshop and what she said about the "narrow and deep" approach. i talked to her about this when i interviewed her and was v. impressed with the work that everyone had come up with over the course of that afternoon.

6:36 PM, December 15, 2006  
Blogger Ben said...

a very unusual poem. thanks for sharing it...

5:14 PM, October 10, 2008  
Anonymous Padma said...

its a wonderful poem, thankyou for posting it...i have myself known great grandmas against everything but well-oiled hair that hug your knees (i do have very long hair, but it's a matter of personal choice) me, change is the only constant, and this poem highlights that wonderfully...she cuts her hair, allright, but her connections with her culture remain intact, as her guilt depicts. her interests change, but not her inner self which remains grounded in her traditions.

1:26 PM, March 23, 2009  

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