The Dutch cleanser woman led us to infinity

Mosaïque_d'Ulysse_et_les_sirènes

Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. 2nd century AD. Public domain. From Wikimedia Commons.

Last month at Churchmouse After Hours we plodded through deserts, rode ships, dug tunnels and escaped tyranny.

We followed T.S. Eliot’s magi at “Just the worst the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey: / The ways deep and the weather sharp, / the very dead of winter.”

We roamed with Ulysses and his “hungry heart,” courtesy of Alfred Lord Tennyson, weighing his claim that “I am a part of all that I have met” and pondering his compulsion to keep moving: “Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move. / How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”

Victoria poet P.K. Page rivalled Ulysses in terms of the sheer persistence of movement in her long life. Born in the U.K., she grew up in Canada, eventually living in Red Deer, Alberta; Calgary; Winnipeg; Saint John, New Brunswick; Ottawa; Montreal and finally Victoria—six of Canada’s ten provinces. During her diplomat husband’s career she also took up residence in Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Guatemala. Instead of geographical travel, though, with Page we ventured on two metaphorical journeys, both seemingly lacking in adventurousness—on the surface, that is. We followed “The Mole,” down “the slow dark personal passage” (here’s a great essay on “The Mole” by Zach Wells, from Arc Poetry Magazine) and took “A Backwards Journey” through the eyes of a child to the very mystery of existence:

the very busy Dutch cleanser woman
her face hidden behind her bonnet
holding a yellow Dutch Cleanser can
on which a smaller Dutch Cleanser woman
was holding a smaller Dutch cleanser can
on which a minute Dutch cleanser woman
held an imagined Dutch cleanser can…

Infinity. Eternity. The evening began with a tour through a decidedly contemporary version of the circles of hell: Asa Boxer’s “Dante’s Ikea,” which appears in Tightrope Books’ upcoming Best of the Best Canadian Poetry in English anthology as well as in Boxer’s collection Skulduggery. (Note: I am assistant series editor of the BCP anthology—this is its 10th anniversary edition!) This poem is a personal favourite—I was lucky enough to be editor of Arc Poetry Magazine back in 2008 when it first appeared in print, in our pages. It’s deliciously wicked. We’re seen these days as a serious, moody lot, but poets take more delight in being wicked (and absurd) than many would expect. Here’s an excerpt:

From thence we proceeded till
we stood atop the stairwell to the final
warehouse floor, and there, we paused

and thus we prayed: “Dear God,
I hope the pieces fit this time.”
Then down we tread

to the third, most dreaded circle;
and with each awful step,
we took the holy name.

The pillows brought no comfort.
The bathmats were all wrong.
The candles smelled like poison.

The vases lacked all grace of form.
The picture-frames and hangers,
though, were irresistible.

There is, if you wish to find it, serious commentary embedded in this tongue-in-cheek critique of our culture, but its scaffolding is pure play: with words, with literary allusion, with a wry, sidelong perspective on this particular “journey” that seems a prerequisite for certain among us in this time and place.

Back on solid ground, the late Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska led us straight into the desperate hearts of “Some People” on the run from violence, ethnic cleansing, war—some threat so depressingly ever-present in human history it requires no specificity:

Some people fleeing some other people.
In some country under the sun
and some clouds.

They leave behind some of their everything,
sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected.

On their backs are pitchers and bundles,
the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next.

Taking place stealthily is somebody’s stopping,
and in the commotion, somebody’s bread somebody’s snatching
and a dead child somebody’s shaking.

This is from the translation by Joanna Trzeciak in the collection Miracle Fair. The poem is tense and plot-driven: you read it hoping to see these refugees safely arrive. But to where? My intense involvement in this poem, my concern for how things will turn out for these people Szymborska has deliberately left generic—without colour, shape, ethnicity, language—reminds me of that instinctive connection that binds all humanity. But it also reminds me how intrinsically our species’ evolution is tied up in movement: the idea of journey, even a necessary one, is intoxicating. It promises strangeness, discovery, possibility, newness, hope, change. Or it seems to…

[Please join us Wednesday, October 25 at 7 p.m. at St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd., for Churchmouse After Hours, the “Hauntings” edition.

Churchmouse After Hours Hauntings edition

Churchmouse After Hours Hauntings on Facebook

Churchmouse After Hours is a monthly neighbourhood coffeehouse with songs, stories, poems and prose on a rotating theme. All are welcome to listen or join in. Note: This is not a literary open-mic. Though local authors do participate, we are all readers sharing work we enjoy and admire. Fourth Wed of most months at 7 pm at Churchmouse Bookshop in St. Mary’s Oak Bay, 1701 Elgin Rd.]

 

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‘Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry’

Wind on an ordinary day in Cape Breton, where we often spend time in the summer, necessitates a sturdy clothes peg and solid technique. I have had to run after my sheets more than once.

Wind on an ordinary day in Cape Breton, where we often spend time in the summer, necessitates a sturdy clothes peg and solid technique. I have had to run after my sheets more than once.

I have laundry on the line. Navy blue flannel sheets, a white blanket, a pair of my son’s tiny pants, an even tinier pair of socks, one bra. We installed the line and pulleys a few weeks ago. Tom, my husband, used some green army rope, leftover from his combat engineer days, to tie the far pulley to the Chinese sumac in our backyard, so we wouldn’t have to hammer a hole in the trunk. So far, the squirrels have not chewed through: it’s issue rope, it ought to be indestructible.

This marks the first time I have had a clothesline regularly at my disposal since 2006. That year, several months before my first collection of poems was published—called Out to Dry in Cape Breton, it was half-filled with poems about clotheslines—I moved from a house with a little yard in Ottawa to an apartment in the same neighbourhood with a fire escape for a balcony. The move was necessary; the new apartment wonderful; giving up the clothesline, difficult. A couple of years later I moved to Montreal, to another lovely apartment, with two balconies this time, but nowhere to hang a line. Then to Fredericton, to another apartment without a balcony or yard. Finally, in 2012, we moved to Toronto, to a house with, again, a little yard. Last summer, due to a sinkhole (yikes) and some other necessary repair work, we did not have the use of our outdoor space for much of the summer. This year, sometime in February or March, when the notion of spring began to creep into consciousness, I started adding “install clothesline” to our weekly to-do list.

On the mild April afternoon when Tom and I were finally putting up the clothesline—Henry, meant to be napping, was watching from his bedroom window—I did the math, and realized that aside from the brief periods we spend in summer on Cape Breton Island, it’s been eight years since I’ve been able to hang my clothes out to dry. That’s a good chunk of my adult life. Yet my sense of well-being, even my identity, remains tied up in this simple chore—a chore that’s spent decades in widespread disrepute in North America, a phenomenon I won’t delve into here (go to Project Laundry List for background on that front).

Putting clothes on the line again, I’ve been reminded that one of the things that makes them compelling, from a writer’s point of view, is what they reveal about the lives connected with them, and even the character of the launderer. I, for example, am not a purist when it comes to organizing laundry. Whatever needs to get thrown in, gets thrown in, regardless of type or colour. I also use a mish-mash of pins, of different colours and designs. There’s nothing uniform about my hanging style.

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I’ve been revisiting a gorgeous little anthology, Washing Lines: a collection of poems, published in England in 2011 by Lautus Press. I’m lucky to have my poem “Woman at Clothes Line” appear in this book (it happens to sit on the page facing Seamus Heaney’s “The Clothes Shrine”!). Beautifully illustrated with woodcuts, the collection also contains, in addition to contributions by several lesser-knowns such as myself, pieces by Pablo Neruda, Anna Swir, Louise Glück, Fernando Pessoa, Louisa May Alcott, Simon Armitage, P. K. Page (her popular “Planet Earth,” actually a glosa built upon a stanza from Neruda’s “Ode to Ironing”).

One of the first poems I fell in love with when I started reading poetry in an earnest, deliberate way, Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” appears in Washing Lines. Rereading it the other day, I was struck by the darker side of the poem. I used to dwell on lines such as the one I borrowed for the title of this entry (“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry”), the brilliant opener (“The eyes open to a cry of pulleys”), and later in the first stanza, “The morning air is all awash with angels.” But now I note the menace of those angels dressed in bed-sheets, blouses and smocks: “Now they are flying in place, conveying/ The terrible speed of their omnipresence”). I also see how reluctant the “soul” is to re-enter the sleeping body that’s been awoken by the morning activity, how important that stanza break after “The soul shrinks”, and how deftly, through the metaphor of the hanging laundry, Wilbur has turned the soul’s daily entrapment within the self into a necessary suffering, one that is not without beauty but that works only by “keeping” a “difficult balance.”

Here’s another memorable transformation of laundry into metaphor, in a little poem with a fantastic lilt, by acclaimed U.K. poet Maura Dooley:

The Line

A heavy linen cloth,
her dress of shooting stars,
the brittle blue of spring,
his sodden woollen shirt.

The peg becomes a pen,
fills the line with cursive,
a changing word in wind,
love or duty or life.

The peg becomes a pen. I’m so grateful to Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught, the editors of this anthology, for noticing how many poets have been compelled to bring poems and washing together, the line composed on paper with the line composed in air, how many have seen and felt “love or duty or life” flapping madly through both.

(I’ve just learned the first edition of Washing Lines is sold out, but a reprint is under consideration. Email Lautus Press at barbara@ryton-house.co.uk and plead with them to do one!)