The poem is filled with powerful images of the speaker’s mother, her hair, eyes, and neck. These are emphasized through the setting in which the speaker is imagining them. It’s clear that there is some distance between the past and this present moment, making the memories all the more powerful in ‘Hot Combs.’
Explore Hot Combs
In the first lines, the speaker begins by describing the setting and the broader atmosphere in her home. She’s looking through drawers in a dark room and comes upon hot combs that her mother used to use. She can remember how they looked in her hands as she fixed her hair. The images of her mother’s neck, eyes, and hair are clearly and emotionally conveyed. They are followed by an allusion to the mother’s suffering, an emotional state that made her even more beautiful.
You can read the full poem here.
Halfway through an afternoon
of coca cola bottles sweating rings
on veneered tabletops and the steel drone
as burning hair. One is small, fine toothed
as if for a child. Holding it,
In the first lines of ‘Hot Combs,’ the speaker begins by setting a very interesting and easy-to-imagine scene. She depicts an afternoon marked by “coco cola bottles” making “sweating rings” on tabletops. This is likely a scene that many readers are going to be familiar with. It evokes time spent indoors while the heat outside is too oppressive. This is emphasized further through the “window fans” and the “steel drone” they make.
The rooms the speaker occupies are dark, creating a very particular atmosphere. She’s looking through drawers and stumbles upon “the old hot combs.” These are old, electric combs that heated up and make styling one’s hair possible. They were still “black with grease” and “pungent / as burning hair.” The latter is something that surely occurred as it was quite hard to control how hot the combs got and that could have a negative impact on the health of one’s hair.
One of the combs she found was “small” as if for a child. Despite the mundanity of these items, it’s immediately clear that the speaker has a connection to them.
I think of my mother’s slender wrist,
the curve of her neck as she leaned over
sweat glistening above her lips,
her face made strangely beautiful
as only suffering can do.
When holding the combs, the speaker is brought memories of her mother’s “slender wrist.” She can see her mother combing her hair, imagine the curve of her neck and her shut eyes. These are evocative images, ones that immediately suggest that the speaker’s mother isn’t around anymore. The memories are what the speaker has left of her.
The speaker is brought to a specific memory of “that morning” when she watched her mother cringe at the heat of the comb. Her face was made “strangely beautiful / as only suffering can do.” This final line suggests something emotionally deeper than the heat of the hot comb. There was more to her mother’s life and suffering than these lines reveal. It’s up to the reader to interpret what that might be and whether that particular morning played a role.
Throughout ‘Hot Combs,’ Trethewey engages with themes of memory and loss. The speaker encounters the hot combs while looking through drawers and is immediately transported back to memories of her mother using them. They evoke a connection to the past, and a feeling of nostalgia, that many readers are likely going to be able to relate to. The way the speaker describes her mother, and the allusion to suffering, suggests that there is far more to the story than is revealed in the nineteen lines of the poem.
Structure and Form
‘Hot Combs’ by Natasha Trethewey is a nineteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, the lines are very similar in length, with several containing exactly eight syllables and others ranging from seven to ten syllables each. Trethewey also makes use of several literary devices that help to make this piece feel unified.
Trethewey makes use of a number of literary devices throughout this poem. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “darkened” and “drawer” in line five and “stove” and “shut” in line twelve.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one, two, and three as well as lines eleven and twelve.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially vibrant descriptions. For example, “The heat in our kitchen / made her glow that morning” and “the hot comb singeing her brow, / sweat glistening above her lips.”
- Caesura: occurs when the writer inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “as burning hair. One is small, fine toothed” and “at her temples. The heat in our kitchen.”
The speaker is a daughter, someone who cares for her mother and who, the poem suggests, may no longer be able to speak to her. It’s unclear whether she’s passed away or if some other force separated the two.
The tone is nostalgic and sorrowful. At times, it is also appreciative. The latter occurs as the speaker admires the memories of her mother, beautiful in a way that’s particular to someone suffering.
The meaning is that even the smallest, seemingly insignificant item can hold importance in one’s life. The hot combs the speaker discovers take her back to memories of her mother, ones that allude to deeper suffering and loss.
Trethewey wrote ‘Hot Combs’ as a way to explore the effect of memories and how those memories can attach themselves to objects. Whether she’s the speaker in this piece is unknown, but, the speaker she’s using is very moved by her discovery of the hot combs and is inspired to share a particular memory.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Hot Combs’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘My Mother at Sixty-Six’ by Kamala Das – is a poem that confesses a daughter’s fear of losing her mother.
- ‘Mother, Any Distance’ by Simon Armitage – the narrator asks his mother to come and help him measure his new house.
- ‘In Memory of My Mother’ by Patrick Kavanagh – is a reflection on the happy memories Kavanagh has of his mother after her passing.