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Head lice: a love story

by Kevin McGowan

                                        A louse

can’t jump, which is just fine!

It can’t float on a breeze, lurk

on a theater seat or lounge

hidden in our hotel sheets.

It can’t bear to hang and chill

on a cuddly toy, or linger

on a discarded blouse.  Like us,

a louse without a human head is

a dear-departed, former, dead thing.

But still they thrive.


                                        The English

sound of louse was ‘loose’

back before the nastiness

at Hastings and the plural ‘lice’

is the result of a long lost umlaut

which used to sound a bit like ‘lease’.

Our vowels have wandered out

from under every louse and the way

we even count their number has

been discarded and displaced.

Yet the common louse clings

on, with its archaic name, and

its stubborn non jump.


                                       These parasites

have resisted all eradication

attempts more sophisticated

than huddling together and combing

or picking their nits from each others’ fur

like we’re still chimps.  Lice have

evolved to survive our noxious

shampoos, cream rinses, and

angrier poisons. But no louse has,

so far, deigned to jump.



what could be more human

than the urge to hold another

human so close that our hairs entwine

so close that the front of yours

becomes the back of mine.  So close:

this deficient pest can simply climb

a louse can’t jump, which is just fine!

Kevin McGowan is a linguist and poet who lives in the bluegrass where he teaches at the University of Kentucky. Both his research and his poetry focus on the power of speech sounds to create and destroy worlds.

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July 2019

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