Katie Bickham’s “Shorn” (NMW 2017)
Katie Bickham of Shreveport, LA has won the 43rd New Millennium Poetry Prize for “Shorn.”
She will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.
“Equal parts ode and lament, this poem explores the power of women’s hair, its ubiquitous influence on art and society, and the awe, fear, and possessiveness it too often inspires in others. An evocative and compelling work.” –NMW
by Katie Bickham
The Pentecostal woman next door confides:
the Lord forbids a blade touch her hair. It rats
and scrapes her knees, unbeautiful, decades old.
She weeps in the mornings, rakes and breaks
comb teeth through it. Her neck is off. She whispers,
“The nice gay man downtown says he will take me
out back, douse it with perm solution, and clap it off
between two boards.” The lord, she knows,
Not even God can bear our nakedness
and in his kindness, curtained us with hair.
Mine is beautiful. I have seen men’s fingers,
possessed, clicking and itching to reach for it,
to catch it in a breeze. It is long, golden,
and as God wills it, when I am unclothed,
it covers almost everything that makes me
With it, imagine all the saviors’ feet
I could anoint with precious oil, on my knees
repentant, weeping. Or put in my place,
towered, chaste, think of all the princes
who could grip it like rope in their sweating fists,
scale my prison, unlock me, liberate me
Before crowds, inquisitors shaved witches
bare to seek out the devil’s mark. If unmarked,
they tried to coax it out, poured boiling lard
into the women’s eyes, navels, vaginas. The devil
marks us all.
Unshorn, we are death itself: serpentine
and secret. Our hair conceals our power
to bear souls into the world, to feed them
from our own flesh: sower, tender, reaper,
shepherd, wolf, wool and fur. For our crimes
in Eden, temples, beds and caves and back
seats, we have been covered by the gods
in hair, snaked by goddesses, marked by devils,
beheaded by heroes and weaponized,
and still your fingers. Your fingers twitch.
You must know what it feels like in your hands.
Perhaps if we let it loose, pin it up, braid it
in one braid, two braids, corn row it,
perhaps if we perm it, straighten it, relax
it, iron it, perhaps if we pick it into an afro,
Perhaps if we shave it, wig it, veil it,
perhaps if we cover it in a habit, so that from the sky,
we are indiscernible from each other,
we will be safe.
Perhaps if we pluck it, wax it into triangles
and thin lines, send electrical signals into the follicles,
Perhaps if we trade it for food, for money,
for train fare, Christmas presents, perhaps if we
let you snip a lock to worship, perhaps if we
let you wrap it around our necks like nooses
we will be safe.
The Russian army found fourteen thousand pounds
of human hair when they took Auschwitz. Bailed
and loose, still curled, ribboned. The hair yet unused
for socks, for mattresses upon which men would dream
of women, for thread, for rope.
Katie Bickham’s book, The Belle Mar(2015), won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize. Katie’s poems have appeared in Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She received The Missouri Review Editor’s Prize and an SLS fellowship.
Katie teaches creative writing at Bossier Parish Community College.
"Shorn" © 2017 Katie Bickham