This was the first of three of Karin’s poems we translated with Canan and, as with all of her work, her poems work very well in English. Her poetry is compact and very concrete. Yet their apparent simplicity holds great depth and she manages to address powerful and complex issues with an admirable deftness.
This poem brings to mind the countless women who have been accused of collaborating with ‘the enemy’ and who, as punishment, have had their hair brutally shorn off. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, many women accused by the IRA of fraternising with men from ‘the other side’, were tarred and feathered: tied to a public place like a lamppost, their hair shorn, they were covered with tar and then with feathers. Seamus Heaney wrote a magnificent, harrowing poem on the subject called ‘Punishment’ that can be found in his collection, North (London; Faber & Faber, 1975).
That Karin is referring to an atrocity like this is made evident in the poem’s opening line: ‘They said she was helping the enemy’. In response, the woman’s eyes ‘were blank’ – clearly, she is traumatised by what is about to happen – so she doesn’t see the scissors as ‘they neared her head’. We chose the verb ‘neared’ as a way of indicating something menacing is happening to her; ‘approached’ sounded too neutral for the context.
We talked a lot about using ‘snip snip’ for the sound of the scissors: did it sound too childish? But, in the end, we decided to stick with it, again because, juxtaposed with ‘cutting steel’, this usually familiar term became menacing.
The third stanza pulls back from the immediate experience of the woman in the poem to discuss how their hair can be used to punish or control women. The following lines about how ‘Hair remembers’ are very poignant, especially when we learn that ‘this hair remembers / those who have forgotten it’. As we can see, this woman has been brutally abandoned.
The significance of hair to this woman is stressed in the fourth stanza when ‘brushing her hair’ becomes for her ‘a pact with life’. But inside her now is the sound of that steel ‘snipping snipping’.
The really problematic lines were those of at the end of the fifth stanza that describe how she ‘brushes her hair a hundred times / loosening everyone who’s left her / one by one from her glistening strands’. Canan’s literal version uses ‘those that have flaked off her life’ – which, unfortunately in English, sounds as though she had dandruff!
We found the idea that ‘bearing your hair / is your life’ a perfect ending to a deep and moving poem.
Sarah Maguire, Workshop Facilitator