The Poet's Perspective: 'Haircut on Via Di Mezzo' airs 'open secret'

February 28, 2011

Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies at the University, is sharing several of her poems via video during the 2010-11 academic year, aiming to engage people "in the deep pleasures of poetry -- language crafted and shaped from words, the 'ordinary' material we all use every day," to explore how and why poems move us.

"The Poet's Perspective" is a weekly poetry video series scheduled to appear during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters on Penn State Live and in Penn State Newswires. Prior to each poem, Becker offers her thoughts about what inspired her to write the piece, then poses a question to consider. Below and in the video link of "Haircut on Via Di Mezzo," Becker directs a point to the speaker's partner, noting that a status they hadn't addressed publicly wasn't actually a secret to others.

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Written as a direct address in the second person, the poem examines the personal and social costs of secrecy and then moves out to describe a scene of patriarchal authority in a family. The speaker, awaiting her turn in an Italian hair salon, ruminates on her first week in Italy with her woman lover. As the narrator recalls buying food and picking up mail, readers understand that the merchants fully realize the two women are a couple. The ruminations end when a child stands up for her haircut, presumably submitting to a female rite of passage in the salon.

Question to consider: What role has secrecy played in your life? How has the experience of "revealing" something affected you and/or your relations with others?

Haircut on Via Di Mezzo

The brisk beautician nodded towards a chair
and twirled a pair of scissors, one hand in the damp hair
of the woman who ran the milk store down the street
I'd frequented all summer. I took a seat. To wait.
                           In town a week,
I'd gone for mozzarella, bewildered by the array,
and eager to please you with my choice. I studied the coy
Italian yogurts, their bright letters, milk cartons,
glass jugs of cream. When my turn came, I tried to explain
that I didn't know what kind -- bufalo, misto -- to buy.
She narrowed her eyes. With whom do you stay? she asked in Italian.
Surprised, I said your name, trying to frame our friendship and
disguise what I knew you wanted to hide. Misto, she said
clearly and repeated your name. She prefers misto.
Every few days, when we ran out of eggs or milk, I returned;
she called me Americana, and asked after you, bella Marianna.

Listen, everybody knew everything. At the lavanderia,
in the steam, the singing Englishman who washed our sheets
and jeans showed his esteem by chatting with me
about your old girlfriend, said she used to complain
about her shirts. (God knows I'd mend mine myself
before I'd say a word.) In line at the Post Office,
I asked for my mail and got yours. For free, the grocer
bagged an aging bunch of leeks, told me to tell you:
make soup. Nights, we sat on the stoop of our seventeenth-
century home, planned a trip to Rome, struggled to get along.
Only the merchants found our work-vacation amusing.
Between us, conversation had become
a series of sparring gestures.

The eight-year-old rose for her haircut
and siblings turned to stare. On one side of me sat
her brothers, on the other, her parents, and an aged grandmother
dressed for the affair in black. The cutter beckoned
with a long finger, and I saw, suddenly, a rope uncoil
and hair twist down the child's back to the floor.
When the scissors snapped and the first hank of hair fell
to the marble tiles, the girl whirled, the whites
in her eyes flashing. I saw tears bubble
and slide down her face as she fixed her gaze on her father.
Cool and serene, he nodded to her, his youngest child,
and she, obedient, knowing what had to be, leaned
toward the blades and turned her wildness inside.

"Haircut in Via di Mezzo" is from All-American Girl, by Robin Becker, © 1996. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the publisher.

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View Robin Becker's schedule of appearances at online. To read or watch videos of previous poems in the series, click here. To listen to an occasional podcast series where Becker and a small group of students and faculty discuss one of her poems, visit "Liberal Arts Voices."

  • To watch a video of Robin Becker reading 'Haircut on Via Di Mezzo,' click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated March 21, 2011