Nicole Cooley

Booklet, Hand-Pressed Paper, Containing Locks of School-Children’s Hair, c. 1861
February 15, 2012 Cooley Nicole

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,

penmanship booklets

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

pinch shut.


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—

Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and is the  author of six book of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (LSU Press 2017), as well as the forthcoming collection Mother Water Ash (LSU Press 2024). Her poems have appeared most recently in Poetry, DIODE, and Scoundrel Time. She is the director of the MFA program in creative writing and literary translation at Queens College, City University of New York.