Janet Gallant and Sharon Thesen, 104 pgs, New Star Books, newstarbooks.com, $18
This might be the most striking, unique poetry book you’ll open this year. It reads like a brutal and heartbreaking memoir that manages to flow like the mountain stream in some Taoist parable. The story and its telling belong to Gallant, who turned to wig-making after developing a hair-loss condition linked to stress and anxiety. The flow and story craft belong to Thesen, an award-winning poet — although it can be difficult to tell where Gallant’s candid and plain-spoken voice ends, and Thesen’s crafting begins. The interweaving of the two is nearly imperceptible.
The story itself is a special brand of awful. It includes childhood sexual abuse, intergenerational mental illness, violence, racism, and a sibling’s suicide. Yet Gallant shows remarkable resilience and compassion. The story arc is too various to summarize here. There are too many moving parts, but the central image is Gallant’s wig-making vocation, and perhaps her salvation. Wig-making, you learn, is a meticulous and meditative process of threading and knotting human hair, sometimes one hair at a time. Thesen explains that Gallant knows a wig is complete when the rewoven fragments seem almost alive again: “when she feels there is someone in the room with her.” Gallant and Thesen have woven something tragic, magical, and redemptive here.
It is powerful; it is heartbreaking, surprising and unforgettable. Truly.