Hornsey Rail Station marked our territory at one end, the World Café where we had our Sunday coffee at the other. The World lies around the corner from Dunn’s bakery, a sole survivor of traditional shops with bakers in white dome hats and shelves of un-sliced white loaves called bloomers. “CRAFT BAKERS IN NORTH LONDON SINCE 1820” is printed on their waxed white paper bags.
Until two years after my husband’s death, when a young Algerian opened Sable D’or as a non-smoking bakery and café, I suffered the smoke at the windowed World. The World had opened in 1989 as the first of the Continental-style cafes to move into the area. For over a decade it had served as my morning writing place. I mention this because of the difficulty I had with the poem “Haircut” ostensibly about my husband’s last haircut, the one referred to in “The Last Week.”
The Last Week
On Sunday we went for coffee.
With my leg in plaster
and my crutches, I went slowly,
I told you, “Go ahead.”
I met the phys-ed teacher
who does Astanga yoga
He had half an hour. “Good,”
I said, “Come meet Geoff.”
Next time I saw the phys-ed teacher
was the Thursday after.
I told him you were dead.
He looked at me, “But
we just met.” I said, “It happened.”
I didn’t see him after that.
I heard he returned to Sydney
with a girl he met.
So we had coffee Sunday. Monday
my plaster cast came off.
We took the bus together Tuesday.
Because I stood, you snapped.
Wednesday you had your hair cut.
Of Thursday I remember
you gave your evening class a miss
and did some desk work.
Friday we were at the pool,
the three of us together.
I was still counting lengths
when you left for work.
You called out, “Enjoy your trip.”
“Shopping.” I groaned, “See you.”
On the Saturday we saw you.
Then we found your will
and the letter-poem Satan
filed in your computer.
It was time-marked two a.m.
that Friday, your death day.
To recap: on Sunday we went to the cafe; on Wednesday he had his haircut; on Friday, he died; on Saturday we were taken to “see” him. I went over the details of this week again and again, slowly finding the poems I needed to write to free myself for the future. “Haircut” was among these poems.
As I worked on “Haircut,” I saw Geoffrey, however sceptical and long-severed from his Chapel background, as a sheep shorn to meet his maker. I saw the haircut as a throwback to his upbringing and let it carry the idea of returning to our roots as we approach our end.
His family, parents, grandparents and generations before them, came from the Potteries in the West Midlands of England. This cluster of five towns which flow into one another is located about fifty miles north of Birmingham. Home to Wedgwood and Dalton makers of fine chinaware, the Potteries has been eternalised in the novels of Arnold Bennett . Learning from Flaubert, this nineteenth century writer practiced accurate observation of the place. In the intervening years, it hadn’t changed much. It was a landscape of working class brick terraces, two rooms upstairs, two rooms down, with a coal-burning stove in the kitchen and an outhouse on a narrow strip of coal-blackened earth referred to as “the backs.” Or so it was in the forties and fifties when my husband was growing up.
In his family like others around them, life was a careful responsible proposition; it was governed by the practice of Bourne “Chapel” Methodism. After the War, his father, who had been a young soldier, worked as a clerk by day and studied accountancy at night. As the same time he served as the chapel organist and dreamed of a time when he would play the piano and compose sonatas. As a boy, it was my husband’s responsibility to escort his father’s mother to Chapel where she attended all services and social events. He attended Sunday School and often was required to remain with his grandmother. In his mind he broke away early but it was only after he left for Manchester University to read English and Philosophy that he freed himself from the chapel routines and what he saw as wrong teaching: the idea of service to others with Paradise held up as a reward. He called this “dogma” and “propaganda” and worse things. He railed against the vulnerability of his people, especially the women folk, his gentle, suffering, dutiful and forbearing grandmother, aunts, mother and sister.
But of course there was a reverse side. Conscious or not, our past remains our property. As he was also a poet, images from chapel days and figures from his Bible study inform his poems. In his poem “Letter From Satan,” he introduces Church teaching and the assumption of shared knowledge learned at Sunday School. Further, he enchanted our daughter with his tales of Jesus and when, in secondary school, she chose a project that involved field work in local religious practice, visiting Jewish synagogues in North London and learning something about my background (though limited by differences between American Reform and British Liberal) he became completely and enthusiastically involved.
For some time, re-reading his poems and reviewing what I could raise from memory, I struggled to reach a finite position on his position. Eventually I saw that I could not get it clear; that perhaps he was less clear than I suspected; and that I had to scrap the seemingly endless pages of stanzas in which I tried to lay out this past engaging with contrasts in our upbringing and in British and American culture.
Renamed “The Sunday Hour,” the poem has a form but it may still be in progress. A reader recently suggested that there might be “too much historicity” by which I think she meant, details around his boyhood and religious upbringing.
Do I retain details of his background? Do I scrap them? Navigating around the end of a life, reading trails backwards from a legacy of written work, how far do we range? Death stands a mirror up for life offering an expanse so vast, it remains invincible. Over the years, I have spent an incalculable number of weeks on this poem. I know it remains important and that hair itself is an emotive primary image.
How many ways can we look at hair? We always look at hair. Hair to see. Hair to touch. Animal and human. Slippery, silky, coarse, rough, knotted. Laguina, the hair of the unborn that falls out. The downy cover that begins to grow. Hair thickens, thins, and it survives longer than the flesh. In the museum at Auschwitz, hair shaved from the victims has been kept in a display cage for over half a century. Bales of this hair have been sold to the US Holocaust Museum for display in this, the twenty-first century and for centuries to come. Among the keepsakes I enveloped for myself are two small sheaves of hair, Geoffrey’s and mine, cut on the same day, three days after his death when we went to the Coroner’s Court for a last visit.
Geoffrey’s hair turned grey early. He was bald on the top of his head. He blamed going hatless in Greece the summer he was twenty one. A naïve pale Brit, he burned until he blistered. Gray with a encroaching bald spot but springy. If he let it grow below his ears, it curled like sheep’s hair. Like the hair of a lost lamb.
On the last Wednesday, slow-walking on crutches because of a broken ankle and blinded by sun refracting from the bumper-to-bumper cars, I saw Geoffrey emerge from the barber shop on the other side of the road. Looking at him, I stopped, expecting him to wave and cross to say “Hello.” But he had hurried off in the opposite direction as if he had other more pressing business. I then experienced one of those moments of intimacy when, we watch like an outsider, a person we know well and live so close to, that much of the time we fail to see him, or we see only with an inner eye. I remember tucking the moment into myself with a feeling of secrecy and preciousness. But this was not the subject of the poem. The poem was about being witness to his last haircut which he scheduled because of a meeting he was to chair two days later, on the Friday. This was a first meeting at a job he had started the month before and after a period of unemployment following a redundancy from massive cutbacks in adult education.
Over the years, as mentioned, by turns the poem has fattened and shrunk. I have taken it out and I have put it away again. Without plan, one Sunday morning this spring, I took myself back to the World Café. I sat at the table we usually chose, his back to the church opposite, I facing the thick wall of stone. This wasn’t another moment in which Geoffrey’s “living soul/was flash’d on mine”*; but in a flash, I saw a way to start the poem again. Unseen he sat in his chair and reminded me that he needed a haircut. He said this as he had before, pushing his chair back and excusing himself to use the toilet where, against his effort to cut down, he went for an “unmentionable” private smoke. His privacy was his choice. He was the one he was hiding from, the one who had set his rules. While he was gone, I took out my notebook and occupied myself with my own thoughts. Besides, the truth was also that we talked at each other as much as listened. In this way we cleared our heads of the work-week, settled family manoeuvres for the next week and were ready to walk in the air. But I digress.
Suddenly I thought I might have a way into the poem. I could start where I was with the reality of writing in the café. As commuters we walked to the station together; as writers we sat writing and talking. I posed us there, poet-partners out for Sunday coffee and croissants and I put myself in the present, haunted by spectre, writing about our past. I sat us where I was and where we had been. Looking up, I saw the church walls were being cleaned of a century of soot and I began to think about the church opposite, the Church of the Cherubim and Seraphim. Built and rebuilt, Anglican, for most of the twentieth century, in recent decades it had changed hands. For some time now it had served as a place of worship for African and West Gospel Singers and also it had been rented, for cost purposes, to musicians and artists for shared use. As a short term tenant, preparing a commissioned piece for a hotel near Heathrow, one of my friends had hung her aerial sculptures from the beams. Further, it was common gossip that some time in the seventies Bob Dylan had rehearsed and recorded behind the thick walls of our local church. Also, he had put in an offer for a property in the area but because the information became public, he had pulled out. Through the cafe window behind the empty chair at my table, I saw gospel singers arriving for a service. Dressed for Sunday show, they were warmly greeting one another.
In other words, I had a lot of associated material to draw on if I was to place us between the Church and the Café. This gave me a boundary and a track to run along.
The Sunday Hour
On the last Sunday we went for coffee
at The World, our regular cafe.
We took a table by the side window
opposite Park Chapel, a church
become a home for artists and musicians
and a Baptist choir that sings its heart out
like those high-soprano aunts of yours,
Rose-Anne and Nelly-May whom we buried
long ago in Stoke-on-Trent.
There you were born in nineteen-forty-one
into a world of women since the War
was on. When you touch your hair, part-grey
and long behind your ears, I hear you say,
among the things we talked about that Sunday,
in the hour given for the business
of our lives, “I need a haircut.”
Every now and then you’d start from shorn
as if to start again and let it grow
unruly, curly. When you were young a rule
for hair: short, combed wet to keep it straight.
You wore a Sunday suit, shepherded
your grandmother to Evening Chapel.
Her own father, Joseph Pedley, built
the chapel. Your father, James, given lessons,
played the organ. You might have stayed to please
the family, you charmer with your voice
of silver and your clever ways. But you
were raring to be gone, forever shut
of church-bound generations. You chose Art.
On Sundays coffee at the World Cafe.
“I need,” you say, “a haircut for the meeting.”
Which meeting? The one you’re chairing Friday
for the job you started Monday last.
On Wednesday I remember because I see you
coming from the barber. I’m on crutches
moving slowly towards the shops. I feel
the current of connection and I wait,
expecting you to wave and cross the road.
But, as if a blinding light is calling,
a world returned for you alone, you turn
and disappear. “I need,” you said, “a haircut.”
As if you knew already of the meeting
and although for years an unbeliever,
and despite old scorn, you’d go, lamb-like,
shaved and shorn, to meet your Maker.
In the World Cafe today I see
your chair beside the window. Across the road,
a gathering of London worshipers.
New Age, they’re gorgeously-attired
—robes like Joseph’s coat-of-many-colours,
hats with veils, pert brims and velvet flowers.
They sing the hymns your old aunts sang in chapel,
and you sang sometimes remembering,
for us, because it is the Sunday hour.
* “In Memoriam,” Alfred Lord Tennyson
Joan Michelson, originally from Boston, lives in London. She has published a collection of poetry, Toward the Heliopause (Poetic Matrix Publishers, 2011), as well as prose and poems in the British Council’s annual anthologies of New Writing. She has received writing fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Djerassi Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has also won the 2011–2012 Year Members Prize from the Poetry Society of England and is currently the Poet Laureate of Thornton’s Budgens, London. Michelson was former Head of Creative Writing at University of Wolverhampton and is now lecturer in poetry at Birkbeck College, University of London. (updated 8/2012)