Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Anna Swir's A Woman Writer Does Laundry

I have introduced a number of Anna Swir's poems to my classes. Today I used A Woman Writer Does Laundry from Talking to My Body to trigger and discuss writing. I had planned to use it in another class, but I'll stop here. I think there's a translation problem. Read it and ask yourself if you know or have known of any woman who would use the word relaxation after doing laundry, especially in the old style. Perhaps the male translators forgot the question mark after Relaxation? And why interrogation marks chosen instead of question marks ? Politics? On second thought, I'll use it in Friday's class too. Some good work and discussion resulted, and I'd like to know what others think, especially of the translation. Is the poet being sarcastic? Or is she genuinely relaxed after doing her laundry? But, of course, this is not the point of the poem, is it?

A Woman Writer Does Laundry

Enough typing.
Today I am doing laundry
in the old style.
I wash, I wash, rinse, wring
as did my grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

Doing laundry is healthful and useful
like a washed shirt. Writing
is suspect.
Like three interrogation marks
typed on a page.

-Anna Swir
Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan
Copper Canyon Press, 1996


Puah said...

For me this is a very Polish poem, with laundry standing in for all the women's work that's "allowed" - i.e. doesn't have to be "interrogated" by the State as writing was for so long. So it is relaxing - she can let her guard down, enjoy a good sweat knowing that no censorship will get in her way. I admire her repetitions, the way they let me get my hands into the cloth with her.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Puah, you are so right here, and don't poems fill us with our own perspectives:

I can see her now:
Mother, bent
over that claw-footed
tub like a question mark
scrubbing clothes
on the old wash board.
Me and Dot
laying out our underwear
flat on the open oven door.

Mother did sing when she washed clothes: On the line/on the line/all my little children's clothes are on the line/if you want to get them clean/you've got to scrub/scrub/scrub/and hang those clothes/out to dry. Maybe she was happy when she washed clothes; but always when I bent over that tub, I could feel my knees, even as a young girl, saying: Get up get up. Get up off this bathroom floor.

Different culture/different time. Still, women's knees and backs hurt no matter the place or time.

Thanks for writing. I've been trying to work this piece into a poem since yesterday. A long way to go but moving...


Esther Altshul Helfgott said...

p.s. My mother (Anna Helfgott) wrote that wonderful song, On the Line, in the 1940s and sang it throughout her life. We sang it together as she was dying, at age 96.


Puah said...

Yes, we read poems through who we are - I love your mother poem [goes with the father poem, good pair] too; again it's so immediate - and the clothes on the oven door are right with us. You are a terrific scene-setter!

Anna's poem sings in my ears ...

Esther Altshul Helfgott said...

Thank you, Puah. I need to do a lot of work on that poem-in-the-making.

I keep thinking of Sylvia Plath with the gas on and the difference between her and my mother. Sylvia suffered a kind of depression that was utterly foreign to my mother who, if she saw depression, said: "What's the point in crying or being depressed?"

You put one foot in front of the other and go. So, for me, it was pretty hard to be depressed around her.

I'm not wired the way Plath was, but have suffered from depression in my life; it's not something my mother could quite understand. I'm sure my anger (and occasional lack of sympathy) toward Plath's suicide is wrapped up with my own mother/daughter issues.


Anonymous said...

I remember the heaviness of the large oval wicker basket...wet clothes mounded inside...heaped into one wet braided lump...bringing them to the backyard clothesline...that looked like a huge spider web...and the wonderful smell of the stiff dried clothes...laundry may have become easier with the invention of the dryer...but it lost some healing magic along the way.