Kwame Dawes

May 25, 2022 Dawes Kwame



I shall go back
before thieves turn my hair to ashes,
in my own, not God’s time
to the immensity of love
and the perfume of poetry
— Neville Dawes, “Switch-back”


And so, twice a year, I test the perfume of poetry
and the ashes in my hair, letting things grow,
the clean baldness my imposition on self –
not to hide the balding (so far there is no balding,
I lack the virility of hairlessness) and not the ash,
for I relish the dignity and artistry of dark hair
accented by the wisdom of greyness. No, I shave
with daily ritual, to ward off the wars of roots,
the scalp-ache of a head of hair being combed –
the roots of my beginning, defiant as all strong roots.
There is a tender vulnerability and assurance
in the smooth topography of my bald pate.
In Jamaica they call us soft-headed people,
we who weep as we yank to order our knots and curls.
I read each indentation and gentle gully of my clean-shaven
head for my history – there is a name for that.
So, now is the season of my rebirth, the season
for my hair to grow, for my beard to grow,
for the marking of my days to be plain to the world,
and I am grateful for the short quick bow,
for “elder”, for “oga” not with bombast but with grace.
My father, at twenty-seven, worried about thieves,
and they did come to break into his cabinet
of perfumes, and they stole much, but left him
that singular jar, poetry, that he cherished and rationed
until it, too, went dry, and all that remained
was the lingering musk, that thing that let him
look into the Blue Mountains on a deep bad-minded rain day,
and conjure in his head, the lasting nostalgia of home—
the slopes of St Anne, where in that mountain village,
he arrived at the age I am now, to visit the dust roads
and the slave polished tombs, to then bend his greying
head and declare that history will continue its march,
and the thieves will not steal everything, not if we stand guard,
and make our bulwarks of language, the push against
all erasure. Still, I must say to him now, though I know
he knew after he had lived on, that God’s time will overtake us –
our bones, our hair, our bodies; and that our last true defiance
is this music. If you see me coming towards you,
I tell my children, my head haloed with the ash of history,
look closely, and then inhale me, and you will,
with each breath, smell the lingering perfume of my making.

Kwame Dawes is the author of numerous books of poetry and other books of fiction, criticism, and essays. His most recent collection UnHistory, was co-written with John Kinsella (Peepal Tree Press, UK 2022). Dawes is a George W. Holmes University Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner. He teaches in the Pacific MFA Program and is the Series Editor of the African Poetry Book Series, Director of the African Poetry Book Fund, and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival. He is a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Editor of American Life in Poetry, Kwame Dawes is the winner of the prestigious Windham/Campbell Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the 2022 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.