Conor Bracken: In Praise of Scissors

Because I have a daughter now I have to cut her. Or, I have to cut off of her the things that were but no longer are her, using nail scissors so sharp they glint, like a grin in the dark. Angled and with a little aperture stamped in them so I can see when I’ve got the blade up against the quick, they make me think of some deep-sea creature, jaws skewed by hadal pressure, teeth splayed so unseeable prey won’t likely escape. Her tiny finger- and toenails—shreds, really—I end up mangling, but never bloodying, them. (Geffrey Davis has a poem about not being so lucky.)

As a leftie, I’m leery of tools. Scissors, can openers, miter saws, spiral-bound notebooks, cursive—they’ve been developed for others (see my father-in-law’s thumb, pollarded by a table saw). But I’m learning to appreciate a good pair of scissors. Something that helps us sort irrevocably and without flourish the fresh from the old, the necessary from the trivial, the thigh from the drumstick or the price tag from the onesie patterned with romping elephants has a value more substantial than the small discomfort in my index finger. They’re like a good linebreak, revealing a smaller unit within what we once thought was complete—each cut a striving towards the actual whole, irreducible and clean as a bone. 

Except, as I’ve learned to steady my hand, and coax my daughter into a temporary cooperative calm, I’ve come to understand that it’s about more than simplicity. Scissors aren’t just about how we separate the self from the inessential—they facilitate intimacy. Like in Eavan Boland’s poem “The Parcel,” where “the shears [are] the colour of the rained- / on steps” an itinerant grinder stood on, haggling the price of sharpening them so her mother could continue using them in the ‘dying art’ of making up a parcel with twine and paper “coarse-grained as wood.” Or the shears in a Patrick Rosal poem I heard him read years ago, that grunted in his mother’s hands like a hog through the fabric laid on the dining room table. Or in Nandi Comer’s poem “The Warning,” where “I feel my face’s grin / when I sharpen my shears.” The care of the scissors—and the care in describing them—is a way to demonstrate the care they themselves allow, in connecting us to others (via post), to our loved ones (via memory), and to ourselves (via grin).

What I really know now is you can’t use scissors crudely for long and get away with it. A couple weeks ago, I went to the barbershop for my first haircut in more than a year. It’s a five-seat operation in a small Rust Belt town in Ohio that despite the pandemic has actually expanded. It’s been able to do this in large part because it allows straight men to be touched by other straight men in ways that are tender, without sacrificing plausible deniability of rugged manliness. What gets me most about the place, though, is that at the end of every cut—the result of meticulously wielded, lavishly cared-for blades—every barber straps a vibrating massager to their forearm and gives you a neck and back rub. I love it (who doesn’t love even a halfhearted one?) but imagine the truck drivers and Bible thumpers, mechanics and skate punks of north central Ohio, allowing themselves this kind of contact. Praise the scissors for leading us here. For showing whoever is near or under them how careful you can and want to be with them. There are parts of us we are always outgrowing. Scissors help us mark that line. And whoever uses them to tend that line, cutting right up on it so carefully it’s as if they’d cut themselves if the blades slipped—they end up inside it, a part of us and not.


Conor Bracken

Conor Bracken's first full-length collection of poems, The Enemy of My Enemy is Me, will be out from Diode Editions this June. He is also the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019) and Jean D'Amérique's No Way in the Skin without This Bloody Embrace (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2022). His work has earned fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has appeared (or will soon) in BOMB, Gulf Coast, New England Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Sixth Finch, among others. He lives in Ohio.

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