Gregory O'Brien


Men come to me with a headful of this
and that. A hat goes a long way
to making up the mind.

I am often asked what a hat
contains: a lost train
of thought, patch of displaced sky. A well-situated hat can be

many things: ice bucket, dormitory, a nesting place
for the tropic bird or rocky outcrop of some
distant geography. The hat is

a commentary on all that is wrong
with the world. It knows
the true shape of

the head beneath it. Among the racks and boxes
I go a long way
out of my way. Necessarily, the hat completes
      the man, the man

the hat. Wind-resistant
yet weather dependent, a Panama, Fedora, Porkpie or
Sombrero is not an approximate thing—

it is an island, as a man
is not. With a minute adjustment of the rim
a man becomes a priest

or cowboy or hired killer. Yet there are
certain things a hat refuses to be. A hat is
not a helmet—and, despite being man’s

crowning achievement, it is
never a crown. A hat of mine would not stoop
that low. In this windless

hat-friendly town, the world goes past
my window: a pram, a flamenco troupe,
a coup d’état. A hat maketh

the man. There is enough inconclusiveness
in the world as it is. Snow-like
my hats fall upon the heads of

the citizens of Santiago. In warm weather
they make themselves
scarce. The moment a stranger

enters my shop, the tilt of his head
tells me where he is from; his hair speaks to me
of wind-flow, humidity, proximity to coast.

Dents, scars and undulations
I note, on forehead or temple
or crown. Only this afternoon,

one customer had been struck
by the boom of a yacht, the next scratched
by a low-flying bird—

my guess, a giant owl. Another
had recently encountered
a cupboard door or chandelier, and this last

knocked out by the wooden leg
of a double bed, crossing
a windswept field. It is these events

that propel men towards my store—the felt hat
offering shelter, protection or, at least
an early warning system.

Homberg or Poor Boy—a hat
consolidates the thinking beneath it.
The innermost lining of a hat

is a man's life. By the time
a customer departs
he has grown to the height of

his hat. Or such is the thinking and so
one day, will be the forgetting.
A thin man is a stem upon which

flowers a tempestuous hat.
My role is that of a baker—a hat
properly fitted, must rise up above

itself. And bear its wearer skywards.
A hat should bring a man to
fullness, fecundity, as the hat itself is

a well-upholstered bird
flightless, except in a Valparaiso southerly.
The shop-window a well-fed

multitude. Less contented the Coquito palm wine
which rampaged through my youth—
the opposite of a hat, it does not clear the head.

Each evening, my hats extend towards
the edges of the city, like taxis or library fines.
Or they reach skywards

above the Santiago Underground
where the hatless dead make what little progress
is allowed them. Broom-like, my gaze

sweeps a man out from under
an ill-suited hat.
In this regard, I am a janitor

a doorman also,
or more correctly a keeper or custodian
of the space within each hat.

The body is a creaking
stairwell spiralling upwards
to this hilltop observatory.

A hat is also an ear
listening in on
the head’s business, with the same exactitude

I record the sound of a hat lifting off
and then landing again—I think of myself also
as Air Traffic Control.

A hat is an underlining
of certain things. A hat thrown high
the monkey puzzle tree casts its cool light

upon our feverish brows. Longshoreman
as well as harbourmaster, I am a wearer
of many hats, a man of influence

beyond the polished floors
and racks, these grey banded hats
which lie in wait like battleships

of the Chilean navy—the tall, leaning vessels
of Valparaiso—becalmed yet
hungry for the tumultuous future

as a window full of hats is
for the light of each new day.

Author’s Note


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