American Life in Poetry: Column 190


Occupational hazards, well, you have to find yourself in the occupation to know about those. Here Minnie Bruce Pratt of Alabama gives us an inside look at a kind of work we all have benefited from but may never have thought much about.

Cutting Hair

She pays attention to the hair, not her fingers, and cuts herself
once or twice a day.   Doesn’t notice anymore, just if the blood
starts flowing.   Says, Excuse me, to the customer and walks away
for a band-aid.   Same spot on the middle finger over and over,
raised like a callus.   Also the nicks where she snips between
her fingers, the torn webbing.   Also spider veins on her legs now,
so ugly, though she sits in a chair for half of each cut, rolls around
from side to side.   At night in the winter she sleeps in white
cotton gloves, Neosporin on the cuts, vitamin E, then heavy
lotion.   All night, for weeks, her white hands lie clothed like
those of a young girl going to her first party.   Sleeping alone,
she opens and closes her long scissors and the hair falls under
her hands.   It’s a good living, kind of like an undertaker,
the people keep coming, and the hair, shoulder length, French
twist, braids.   Someone has to cut it.   At the end she whisks
and talcums my neck.   Only then can I bend and see my hair,
how it covers the floor, curls and clippings of brown and silver,
how it shines like a field of scythed hay beneath my feet.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2003 by Minnie Bruce Pratt. Reprinted from “The Dirt She Ate: Selected and New Poems,” University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003, by permission of the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2019 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.