Poem: "Barbershop" By Phillip B. Williams

"So I’m sitting in the barber shop getting my hair cut when this dude say he would kill his son if he found out he was gay..."

And the hot-toothed clippers stay

hacking hair like field hands.

Everybody quiet for a moment, a few

awkward stares, a few heads

nodding in what seems like agreement but, shit,

they could be keeping rhythm

to A Tribe Called Quest blasting from the stereo.

And in the air cut with alcohol and cologne,

cut with precum soliciting the seams

of a secret desirer quickly licking last night’s boy

from his teeth, pubic hair genuflecting

in his eager saliva, words with blue-black

wings spiraling the tonsils—in that air

where the tumbling balls of hair

are the guillotined heads of uncloseted sons cracked

on every curve, the men hold each other.

Hands on faces, fingers on necks, a thumb

on deck at the chin lifted up for a kiss

from the liner, fingers softly folding down

an ear to get the lining right, precise

as a slice of cake, line can’t nobody cross,

these hands touching like women

are never allowed while men caress other men

into gorgeous. A room full of men is a room

full of dead boys, of imaginations made cruel

because made silent. How can one build

a temple with secrets? I make weapons out of secrets.

See these daggers glisten back a tapered ruin,

every blade a mirror, these lonely hatreds familiar

as a man’s voice asking how he can

make you better. But no one says

anything. I open my mouth to spit

through the agreement. All the men’s names

I’ve kept hidden fly out from me on blue-

black wings. I’m an aviary of fallen kings.

I shoot them bird by bird until no kingdoms

are left. I open my mouth to warn

the to-be-killed sons but I only hear

my barber speaking. And what he says

in my silence is what I say: man

just beat his ass. Don’t kill dude. And the way

he says it sounds like a man

negotiating with options he doesn’t like

because all options lead to looking

at his palms and shaking his head.

Phillip B. Williams is the author of Thief in the Interior, a finalist for an NAACP Image Award and Kate Tufts Discovery Award. He received a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship and is the co-editor in chief of the online journal Vinyl. He is currently visiting professor in English at Bennington College.

Skip to footer