A lock of John Bantings hair
A lock of John Banting’s hair

In his fourth visit to the Tate archive, Paul Farley finds some resonant human remains

I wanted to be the first person to write a poem beneath Tate Britain at Millbank. Not in Tate, for that’s surely been done, but underneath it, in the archive. It’s a strangely territorial impulse, writing as mountaineering or polar exploration (“because it’s there”), and I’m sure the Channel tunnel and the London Eye have long since been claimed. But it also has something to do with using a space – a whole parallel universe, in the case of Tate archive – creatively. Italo Calvino once spoke about the pleasure “in experimenting with a method of thought as though it were a gadget”, so I’ve descended with a resolve to treat the archive as a vast machine that could generate poems.

But where to begin? I’d noticed on previous visits that the archive is hirsute: I came across a lock of hair by accident while looking for something else, and today I’m finding a lot more of it. Not sable or hogshair, which undoubtedly exists down here too, but human hair. It seems slightly unpleasant, perhaps evidence of how we’re cut off now from a long tradition of using hair as a keepsake, as a part of our funeral or sentimental customs. But it compels too, as if we could know something about, or imaginatively clone, the long dead from their durable keratin. This isn’t altogether as fanciful as it sounds: when they discovered the Ice Age man preserved in an Italian Alps glacier, his hair was analysed to determine all kinds of life data. These strands of hair are archives within the archive.

So, here is a lock of Eileen Mayo’s hair from 1908, when she would have been two years old. She studied with Moore and Léger, revived printmaking in Australia and designed the platypus one-shilling stamp, but here she is, before all that. I find an envelope inscribed “chevaux de Kit enfant”: the wisps of hair inside belong to the baby Christopher Wood, who would go on to meet Augustus John, Picasso, Cocteau and Max Jacob, and develop a striking style all his own; who would end up dead beneath a train at Salisbury station at the age of 29. John Banting (1902–1971) – designer, among many other things, of Hogarth Press covers for the likes of E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West – exists here in a tiny, salmon-pink envelope labelled “Jack’s Curls”: his yellowy hair is migrating restlessly, as hair does, into the larger clear plastic envelope, which now resembles a used wax depilatory strip.

After a few false starts (and a few atrocious hairdressers’ puns, which I won’t repeat here), I get stuck on the idea of cataloguing the hair of living artists, which seems to lead, in Borgesian fashion, to the description of an artwork I will now never have to make. At the last moment before I ascend, I’m changing “artists” to “poets” (well, can you name twenty living poets?). So this issue of Tate Etc. will play out on the first sonnet to be written underneath Tate at Millbank. Unless I hear otherwise:

A Lock of Hair from Twenty Living Poets

curled variously on the gallery wall,
some tied-off with ribbon, some with cat-gut,
the longer specimens making those whorls
familiar from the floors of hairdressers
and barber-shops, the shortest barely tuft
enough to dress a salmon fly, the colours
within a streambed’s range. You’d be hard pushed

to put a name to twenty living poets:
Are there that many? one critic asks
at the private view. I stand beside my work
and eavesdrop, incognito, to remarks
like this all night. We are too many, but
they feel cheated: demand a few death masks.