Tuesday, January 28, 2014

One of my favorite camellias, Purity

We have grown this camellia in a tub near our front door for many years. It is just beginning to bloom now. It has lots of buds and will continue to bloom for quite some time. When I worked at the library, I used to wear one in my hair and it lasted all day. 

It is brilliantly white, like one of the well-laundered shirts my father always wore to work at the General Electric Company. When they were no longer suitable for work, he cut the collar off the band and wore one to work in the garden, or on all the house improvements he made. He would roll up the sleeves first, and then in summer cut off the lower parts of the sleeves. For a long time he had these shirts done at a laundry. They came back wrapped around a cardboard (these "shirt cardboards" were a favored art material and much prized by us.) Later, the shirts were also wrapped in a plastic bag imprinted with the legend, "LOOK NIFTY, BE THRIFTY, USE SWIFTY. (Swift Cleaners) This was before the time of Ziplocs--we re-used these bags for everything. Just the other day, I found one wrapped around a doll I had before I went to school. I will scan it soon, and add that to my collection of sacred family artifacts. 

Tonight, a poem that I have loved for many years, since I first hear the poet read it here in California about the time his book, THE WANT BONE, came out. Some of the reasons I love it are personal, like my love of textile details and sewing. I also like all the labor history and specificity about the Triangle Fire, and the differing places and circumstances where clothing is made. I like VERY MUCH all the specific details that are recounted so clearly and in such a loving way. I admire the organization of the poem in three-line stanzas. It contains lists, stories and all sorts of material in this form. It is a truly admirable piece of work and unlike any other poem I know.

If you get a chance to hear this poet read in person, be sure to take it. He is s superb enunciator of poems.


The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

From Robert Pinsky Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2011, pages 102-104

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