Girl, she told me
watch out for those mens with pictures
of other women on they
tall oak chest of drawers
when you ask they be saying
Nah, her, she's just an old
something. but you better know
better know better know
nothing dead remains at eye level.


The dapper esthetician
rubbed her face with herbs
scraped scales and reprimanded
"drink water by the quart not the teaspoon"
"some people" he pouted, "don't know
how to behave". he was waiting
in chrome and steel coloredhood
on the east side so folks could go down
or over, in his white coat and french skills
for a star, to lie beneath his heatlamps


The big one chopped my hair.
He could flutter thick fingers
like a raffia breeze swore
betty was carmen 'cause he knew his jazz
and bemoaned brenda russell's passing. that music
ooo, into prince. but really travelled
away. the partypeople pursued
a lesser dream. All the men he'd
love were us, honey, 'cause the
others, you don't know where
they've been


readying first wrench back
to fryhood down the hill to harlem proper. where
the westindian woman wore a gold tooth
in a razor smile honey can i
help you she tried to steal
me before my lady returned
from back and the man wearing a peacoat
and a suitcase full of outsize girdles
appeared. all the old women gathered
like pigeons to wonderbread in mount morris park
the old yellow woman would be burnt
by the old yellow woman
the razor smiles and broke souls
went to bigbreasted goldtooth who'd bandy or browbeat
each client fit her lady
pets to their owners each
booth was an office an altar
to stringent god of grease and hot iron
and the serious or those passing through
went to my lady of second car,
home in jersey
each head a step
toward freedom


Lola gentled fiveyearold cries
my tenderheaded strain
against the comb
sometimes her belly against my head
but she had a way
better than mommy's
somewhere close to barbering:
sober grownups in tilefloored splendor
of mirror facing streetlife see
yourself in grand high chairs
spinning thrones pedaled upwards
to attending angels of beauty's ministry
her apartment up the hill
St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem
large dark calm space
devoted to chasten me pretty
mommy said you must
suffer for beauty


andy gave it the old college try
reinitiated me to chemical fry
a little richard
the old time religion
in the hang of his conked
dark locks
the rigor of his hysteria
that vocal sweep from chuckle to giggle
tattle-tale sans tit
had shampooed and straightened
3 generations 2 sides of family some of all were there to cry over
he was going when he last did me
conked my hair to a tee


The one too serious
to be gay too nervous to be
messing in my head with heat
the one they'd call queer and rob
or faggot and rape on a twilit
summer evening below series of shuteyed lampposts
or just take his day's earnings
why else would his musty shop
bear signs of botanica or
air of funeral parlor, purple maroon
velvet drapes heavy with lashes and wide sashes
windowbox clotted w persistent upper growth of dead plants
why else would he be on '16th street
smack traffic central
denizens of despair
prowling daynight sidewalks
for hydrants of anything to be uncapped
why else would he do my hair
urge me home rush me out of there


Lalonnie, for hawaiian birth
( her mommy reshaped the spelling),
tugged my naps to freedom from
the daily scrape of comb
array of braids, carefree corona
lanky nimbus walking
with ease swimming with joy
bounded variations of millipath
threads, deft weave of future
and past, the taut pull and
facelift, headtingling tug
and slant-eyed stretch of scalp:
low tech and high craft
magic midwife attending pain
and crowning glories
made me love my head
let my sweat be welcome again.

Akua Lezli Hope
previously published in African American Review, 1992

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