What My Hair Says About You
reviewed by Nate Logan
In a blurb on the back of Laura Theobald’s What My Hair Says About You, Ben Fama observes that, “[Theobald] gives up on communication and instead decides to tell the reader how she really feels.” Anyone who’s ever been in an introduction to poetry workshop can tell you one of the few “rules” of poetry is never to assume the “I” in a poem is the author, never assume that poems are non-fiction. This valuable rule can spare a reader the embarrassment of asking “Did [fill in the blank] really happen?” questions and an author some annoyed eye-rolling in response. In the case of What My Hair Says About You though, content and form are so complimentary in their depiction of a dissolving relationship, it’s hard not to believe that Theobald is just telling us how she really feels.
Theobald accomplishes this masterfully by layering her poems in duende. This term, originally associated with flamenco, was famously explored by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, but musician Nick Cave’s interpretation of duende as it relates to the love song is perhaps more apt here:
Sadness or duende needs space to breathe. Melancholy hates haste and floats in silence. It must be handled with care. All love songs must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all but rather Hate Songs disguised as love songs, and are not to be trusted.
— Nick Cave’s Love Song Lecture, Sept. 25, 1999.
Replace “songs” with “poems” above and Cave could be describing What My Hair Says About You. In largely blunt, lowercased, short poems, Theobald fleshes out the dissolution of a relationship between the speaker and an unnamed “You.” The aches and sighs Cave speaks of frequent the lines of these 59 poems—we can trust them, and Theobald, to lead us down their dark corridors.
Theobald leads down these corridors not only by writing in the style of “Internet poetry” that was popular in the early 2000s, but to a larger effect with her precise use of swears. While swears can sometimes come across as gimmicky or unnecessary (and might seem like an odd thing to draw attention to here), they are essential in these poems, injecting the overarching narrative with urgency. In “fold” for example:
i can’t get high ´cause who will take care of the walls i built so carefully you sneaky cocksucker you are a fucking genius to ever get around those walls
The speaker simultaneously compliments the “You” on his cleverness while being frustrated that he has gotten close to her. The only way the speaker can get hurt is if she lets people close; swears help illustrate this realization. In “sex is weird,” the speaker’s anger manifests again with a distinct, feminist tone:
you are literally inside my body you fucking goon no one will ever be good enough to be inside my body but here you are
Again, the speaker expresses her irritation that “You” has not only gotten close to her by getting around her walls, but now has gotten around the barrier of her physical body. Later, in “ooh,” after a formal relationship has been established, “You” gives the speaker the silent treatment, but it’s more than that, it’s “a white frozen sea / of cold ass motherfucker” (9-10). This seems to appease the speaker though; she says it’s “the greatest thing you’ve ever done” and “what’s nice about it / is / it’s something i can walk across” (4, 11-13). Unlike the first two examples, this instance of swearing is initiated by “You” to keep the speaker at bay. It does not seem to have the intended effect though, as the speaker uses this silence to get away from the “You,” a person who has elicited mixed feelings at best at this point.
Of course, that’s not to say that these scattered moments of swearing are the only force propelling these poems. Theobald also crafts many beautiful moments throughout, often using the barest of language. Sometimes, these moments occur when the speaker is at ease. In “when i’m a forest,” she says, “when i’m quiet in our love / i’m a quiet forest” (1-2). The speaker is pristine nature incarnate when she feels connected to "You." At a later point in the relationship in the poem “clash at demonhead,” the speaker says, “his mother holds me deeply / in a parking lot / a safety phrase” (1-3). The only solace provided in this poem comes with two women embracing, echoing other feminist threads in the book. I can’t help but imagine this scene like the end of Lost in Translation; in both, it’s not revealed what is said, but it feels like a tender moment has transpired.
The most triumphant moment comes at the end of What My Hair Says About You. The book has tracked the beginning, middle, and now the end of the speaker’s relationship with “You.” Theobald ends with the poem, “alone by you”:
& i hate your flowers you have learned to be sweet & your flowers it is the time when you know it is the last time you will see the woman & she is the most beautiful this time
“You” has sprung a last ditch effort to change, to convince the speaker to stay, but it’s too little, too late. “You” brings flowers and “learn[s] / to be sweet,” but that’s not enough (3-4). The speaker has grown throughout the course of the book; she feels good and we feel good that she can move on from a relationship that has caused so much conflict. In the title poem, Theobald writes, “i gave up something for you / & i’m not sure / what is was” (9-11). In the end, she gets that something back—she gets herself.