Booklet, Hand-Pressed Paper, Containing Locks of School-Children’s Hair, c. 1861
Wound on a bobbin like thread. Woven into a wreath
and cross-stitched with a sampler’s background,
tiny heart-shaped flowers. All the hair collected
from the children who died of yellow fever, influenza.
In another century, infant life expectancy halved –
I walk through the hot dark of the Dime Museum
past The Maori Warrior: an Ethnological Attraction.
Past the London Fat Man.
The Dental Practice Head.
Where is the long table spread with loose strands
the mothers’ hands straightening,
unfurling curls to lay each flat?
In another century, a silver pitcher collects
water from the faucet with its sharp spout.
I stand at the sink and pour and pour, water running
through my daughter’s long hair and down
her back, water that is all pleasure,
silver fistfuls over her skin.
Here is a post-mortem daguerreotype
of a dead child wearing a christening dress and set
in a wicker carriage, eyes shut.
But nothing stops me walking
like the book of hair. Grief collected. Saved.
Inside a bell jar is a matchstick capitol.
Beside it a double-bodied duck.
I think of the children at their school desks,
open to copy.
The children, skin limned with fever.
The children taken from their mothers.
All the children in their beds, row upon row of white,
like a book’s blank pages.
The children quarantined.
What’s not exhibited: the voices of the children calling.
Or the mourning pin to close the blouse
while a mother’s milk dries up, her breasts
I pour and pour as if the water could keep her
as if I could make grief
small, wind it in a bobbin, hide it in a sewing box.
I can’t walk out of the museum. Wound. Unwound.
Remember the mother’s open, useless hands—