Poetry on Lockdown is a blog series in which writers and Library staff reflect upon poems chosen from our website. They’ll write about how the poem is providing comfort and inspiration during the lockdown. Today, the Director Asif Khan looks at ‘Grey Hair’ by Angela McSeveney.
As I sleep my scalp labours on
weaving glittering strands
from the dead fibres of my hair.
Never so noticeable when I was a brunette,
now they drift everywhere
like frost-rimed leaves.
Pinned to my cardigans by static
they are wrought metal jewellery,
a filigree of fancy embroidery.
They cling to the bristles of brooms,
the insides of vacuum cleaners,
clog the shower stinking of marsh gas.
I have heard of birds’ nests being found
lined by hanks of it: our council guidelines suggest
mulching it down on the compost.
Then there’s the pounds of skin flakes
sinking annually into the mattress
to keep the dust mites going.
It’s not at the very end that we return
to the earth we came from.
It takes us back in instalments.
From Slaughtering Beetroot (Edinburgh: Mariscat, 2008)
Reproduced by permission of the publisher
Lockdown has conjured an online hive of voyeurs casting critical eyes at the state of the nation’s bookshelves and quarantine haircuts. Indeed, the latter was absurdly politicised in an exchange in the Scottish Parliament on how presentable the First Minister’s hair had been at the daily COVID-19 briefings.
Hair is woven into some of humanity’s most ancient myths and legends. In Norse mythology, the trickster god Loki sheared the golden locks of the goddess Sif, wife of Thor. Sif’s hair was greatly treasured by Thor. Sif, and by extension her hair, is associated with wheat and fertility. In some interpretations Sif is the embodiment of the earth itself.
According to legend, Loki snuck up on Sif when she was drying her hair on rocks by a sparkling stream. Loki then cast a mischievous spell on Sif so that she would be none the wiser whilst he snipped away. On awakening and discovering that she had been shorn, Sif bawled her eyes out and submerged farmland far and wide with her salty tears.
The Norse gods were displeased at Sif’s distress – and the potentially sodden harvest. Odin, the chief amongst the deities, ordered Loki to find a way to return Sif’s luscious mane or he would have all hell to pay. As the story goes, Loki accomplished his feat with the help of weaver gnomes who inhabited the centre of the earth. Loki presented Sif with a headpiece of golden threads that were as soft as silk. Sif looked mighty bonnie and, feeling happy with her tresses, she returned the fields to fertile abundance.
Loki also buttered up the gods by presenting Odin with a spear and Thor with a hammer, again made by the industrious gnomes whom you would imagine would be the sort of people who would make good use of a lockdown by learning to play a new musical instrument or become fluent in a new language or bake fantastic cakes – you get the picture.
Now this tale, which appears in both the Old Norse texts Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, might seem as fantastical as a road trip to a castle in County Durham to test the eyesight. Nonetheless it illustrates how people from the earliest times have equated hair with standards of beauty, fertility and vitality.
These associations take a twist and are inverted in Angela McSeveney’s poem poem, ‘Grey Hairs’. The shock of hair is the alarm of getting old. Similar to a Greek tragic hero, its protagonist is comically melancholic, opening with, ‘As I sleep my scalp labours on’.
McSeveney’s poem is an ode to loss and shedding: of melanin, ‘when I was brunette’; of liveliness, ‘the dead fibres’; and of hairs, ‘They…clog the shower’.
Lockdown too has been about loss: of life, of contact and of time. The staging posts of lockdown and uplifting of restrictions have been akin to episodic religiosity – meta ritual (the herd) in contrast to mesa solitude (the hermit).
Unlike Loki’s debt to Sif, which had to be paid in full, McSeveney believes that our own bargain with mortality is piecemeal; that the earth from which we came ‘takes us back in installments’.
The response to the pandemic has exposed much of our society’s cynical attitudes towards our senior citizens. The golden years, like Sif’s substitute hair piece, are an artifice.