I was definitely in need of a haircut.
Not a big deal really. No need of an anaesthetic. Not like the dentist can be. I was in town anyway so I popped into my usual salon. I was a bit disconcerted to find that, for the second time within a matter of months, my favourite hair dresser had disappeared into the unknown.
‘Who else is there?’ I asked of the couple behind the reception desk, she blond, he dark, both smiling.
‘How do you like your hair cut? Clippers or scissors?’ he asked.
I paused, never having been asked this question before. ‘Well, it’s been scissors every time so far.’
‘Ah, that’d be Isabella. She’s the best with scissors.’
I made the appointment for the following Thursday, curious to find out more.
The day arrived and I needed to decide what book to take to read as I waited.
It was a hot day and the two books I’m reading at the moment are heavy tomes, in every sense of the word ‘heavy.’ It didn’t seem a good idea to lug either of them down to town in my shoulder bag.
Where was some light reading, I wondered?
Poems would be good. I stared at the relevant shelves. How about Edwin Morgan? I took down his Selected rather than Collected Poems. A weight issue again. His poetry didn’t match my mood of the moment. I put him back for another time.
I’d bought it in March 2005 and remembered reading it with great pleasure. I could only recall one phrase from the whole book: ‘this infernity of ice.’ I’d borrowed the word ‘infernity’ to use in my own poem Uncertain Death. This choice felt promising. I opened the book and skimmed the first page.
In autumn, on the train to Pennsylvania,
he placed his book face-down on the sunlit seat
and it began to move. Metre established,
carried on calm parallels, he preferred to read
the paragraphs, the gliding blocks of stanzas
framed by the widening windows –
I was hooked. Not only did the book look and feel physically beautiful, except for the lurid blue of the flyleaves at either end, but the evocative flow of the lines drew me irresistibly in.
I had a few minutes to sit in the garden at the dimpled glass table with a coffee, immersing myself in the opening sections, before I had to set off.
He exactly captures the reverie of a train journey:
There was sweet meditation on a train
even of certain griefs, a gliding time
on the levelled surface of elegiac earth
more than the immortal motion of a blue bay
next to the stone sails of graves, his growing loss.
Maybe you have to have reached a certain age, as he certainly has, to resonate fully to lines of that kind.
Half way through my coffee I was jerked to full attention by an unexpected section which I had completely forgotten. It comes after his encounter with a woman who feels the horrors of Kosovo were the fault of the Jews:
The tidal motion of refugees, not the flight of wild geese,
the faces in freight cars, haggard and coal-eyed,
particularly the peaked stare of children,
the huge bundles crossing bridges, axles creaking
as if joints and bones were audible, the dark stain
spreading on maps whose shapes dissolve their frontiers
the way that corpses melt in a lime-pit or
the bright mulch of autumn is trampled in mud,
and the smoke of a cypress signals Sachsenhausen,
those without trains, without mules or horses,
those who have the rocking chair and the sewing machine
heaped on a human cart, a waggon without horses
for horses have long since galloped out of their field
back to the mythology of mercy . . .
And I reflected sadly that we are too close to being back there again. As he begins to draw this section to a close I read:
. . . now there is a monstrous map that is called Nowhere
and that is where we’re all headed, behind it
there is a view called the Province of Mercy,
where the only government is that of apples
and the only army the wide banners of barley
and its farms are simple, and that is the vision
that narrows in the irises and the dying
and the tired whom we leave in ditches
before they stiffen and their brows go cold
as the stones that have broken their shoes,
as the clouds that grow ashen so quickly after dawn
over palm and poplar, in the deceitful sunrise
of this, your new century.
I looked at my watch. I was cutting it fine. I didn’t want to walk too fast on such a hot day and arrive sweating at the salon. I took my cup inside, locked the back door, even though we’ve never been burgled, and put the prodigal in my shoulder bag.
I walked slowly down to town, enjoying the sunlight on the lime trees at the road side, unencumbered and unafraid.
I reached the salon with five minutes to spare. I walked to the waiting area at the back, a conservatory with corrugated plastic roofing. The sunlight poured in making it something of a sauna.
A girl with blue tattoos checked who I was. I told her and asked if she was Isabella.
‘No, she’s just finishing with another client.’
As I began to sweat in the heat I hoped she wouldn’t be too long. I didn’t get the prodigal out for fear of soaking it in sweat. It is too beautiful a book to risk damaging that way though I don’t mind streaking the inside with yellow highlighter pens.
She wasn’t long. It was only a moment really before a tall woman with a shy manner asked me to follow. Her accent sounded Polish.
Once I had been settled in the black upholstered chair and I was suitably bibbed and tuckered, she fended off my questions about why the staff turnover was so high.
‘Shortage of staff, maybe. I don’t know.’
I shared my perplexity about the scissors/clippers question after hearing the girl at the next chair ask her customer which he preferred.
Isabella had no idea why anyone would ask that question.
I moved onto ask whether the current polarised debate over Europe was a problem for her. Maybe the poem was influencing me subliminally.
I often bump into someone from Poland here, as Hereford has welcomed incomers from that part of the world since the Second World War. There is a large population of their descendants as well as a significant number of others coming in and out, partly as a result of the fruit picking work in summer. I don’t usually ask this kind of question when I meet someone from that background.
‘Some people have strong feelings, yes. Everybody has their opinion. It can be difficult sometimes.’
I launched into a bit of a sermon, as I watched the scissors snip inches off my white and thinning hair.
‘I feel the time has come when we need to stop distracting ourselves from the really important issues like climate change. We can only solve them if we sink our differences rather than increasing them. We’re just one human race and we really need to work together now.’
She smiled and nodded but said nothing.
She did a good job on my hair. I paid and left, indicating I would see her next month probably. She smiled warmly in her quiet way as I walked out of the door. Maybe she had responded to the positive drift of my pontificating.
As I walked home I was touched by how relevant the passage in the poem was to the reality even of my safe and stable existence. I did not have to look far to find people who might have been wounded by words if not by worse.
A line I came across later shed its own light on the matter: ‘We read, we travel, we become.’ We are more exposed than we ever were to one another across great distances. We need to be careful what we choose to become as a result. Poetry such as Walcott’s can help.