For many years, I’ve been obsessed with a poem by Hugo Williams called ‘The White Hair’ which appears in his 1979 collection ‘Love Life’ as a page-length meditation on lost love. The narrator of the poem is taking a late night walk ‘through streets I know too well for walking in’, reflecting on how ‘the days / Lap one another’s memories’ and how ‘days cannot return / Forgiveness’. It is a poem framed around absence, a search in vain:
Not day by day
But line by line I live, not seeing you..
The poem ends with the arresting image of someone in front of a mirror, trying to remove a white hair. By the time ‘The White Hair’ appears in Hugo Williams’ ‘Collected Poems’ (2002), it has been pared back to two short stanzas, foregrounding the image of the hair:
…The hungry hours of the earth grope through me
In their search for images.
I wish I could pluck you out of me
As easily as the white hair I saw in the mirror,
Though even then I noticed my searching right hand
Start moving in the wrong direction.
I came back to ‘The White Hair’ again recently after I heard the term ‘ghosting’ for the first time. ‘Ghosting’ means one person suddenly and completely cutting contact with another (refusing to answer calls, texts and emails) in a friendship or relationship, without ever articulating the reason. A friend referred me to ‘ghosting’ as a term to describe something I’ve been experiencing in a friendship recently.
As a writer, I’ve always been intrigued by ghostly terminology (I wrote and published a whole sequence of ghost poems in 2010) and found the word instantly captivating. Returning to Hugo Williams’ poem, I started thinking about how technology makes it easy for us to pluck people out of our lives as easily as the pale hair in the poem. Block. Delete. Unfriend. The mirror of the screen shows no evidence, reflects us as we want to be seen. It’s easier than ever to deny someone’s existence.
What’s interesting to me is that the later version of ‘The White Hair’ is clearer, more precise, stripped back, yet – for anyone who has read ‘Love Life’ – it contains the ghost of the longer poem, it remains haunted by the expansive 1979 version. Perhaps all poems contain the traces of former drafts and versions, even when we cut them brutally. Thinking about ‘ghosting’ and how hurtful it can be, I ended up reflecting on my own writing process and how I might use a poem as a way of editing my own experience, imposing a new, partial reality in the way somebody might through ‘ghosting’. Perhaps through writing and editing, we ‘ghost’ aspects of the past, deciding what to leave unsaid, what to remove, what to replace. I recently wrote a piece for the Young Poets Network about the power of the unspoken and the negative in poetry, thinking about Andrew Waterhouse’s poem ‘Not An Ending’, a piece framed around denial.
Of course, what I love most about ‘Not An Ending’ is its ironic conclusion:
have shrugged, but never shook.
He had no regrets and would not think
of her again. He would not think of her again.
The narrator of ‘The White Hair’ stands before the looking glass and finds his hand ‘moving in the wrong direction’. The poem forgets and retains, destroys and preserves.