“No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience…Only they who go to soirees and legislative halls must have new coats, coats to change as often as the man changes in them. But if my jackets and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not?”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
We have tried to collect some good artistic writings–poetry and essays–about laundry and washing. A couple of more academic pieces are also included, as well.
The Dirty Laundry Poem, by Erika Jong
Laundry, by George Bilgere
Clothesline/Cloudpole, by Dana Atchley (1968)
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, by Richard Wilbur
Taking in Wash, by Rita Dove
Clothes Line (Saga) by Bob Dylan
“Wash”, “Wash Day”, and “The Clothes Pin” all by Jane Kenyon in Otherwise
Bright Sun after Heavy Snow
by Jane Kenyon
A ledge of ice slides from the eaves,
piercing the crusted drift. Astonishing
how even a little violence
eases the mind.
In this extreme state of light
everything seems flawed: the streaked
pane, the forced bulbs on the sill
that refuse to bloom…A wad of dust
rolls like a desert weed
over the drafty floor.
Again I recall a neighbor’s
small affront — it rises in my mind
like the huge banks of snow along the road:
the plow, passing up and down all day,
pushes them higher and higher…
The shadow of smoke rising from the chimney
moves abruptly over the yard.
The clothesline rises in the wind. One
wooden pin is left, solitary as a finger;
it, too, rises and falls.
“Bright Sun after Heavy Snow” by Jane Kenyon, from The Boat of Quiet Hours. © Graywolf Press, 1986.
by George Bilgere
My mother stands in this black
And white arrangement of shadows
In the sunny backyard of her marriage,
Struggling to pin the white ghosts
Of her family on the line.
I watch from my blanket on the grass
As my mother’s blouses lift and billow,
Bursting with the day.
My father’s white work shirts
Wave their empty sleeves at me,
And my own little shirts and pants
Flap and exult like flags
In the immaculate light.
It is mid-century, and the future lies
Just beyond the white borders
Of this snapshot; soon that wind
Will get the better of her
And her marriage. Soon the future
I live in will break
Through those borders and make
A photograph of her-but
For now the shirts and blouses
Are joyous with her in the yard
As she stands with a wooden clothespin
In her mouth, struggling to keep
The bed sheets from blowing away.
Wood on cloth on cord
by Amy Benedict
If I’m to be caught in a wave of terror
My whole sky life, wiped out
Blown to a tiny, dirt speck end
Vaporized into my next life
Without the long goodbye
The eye to eye pull kiss ending
Then catch me hanging sheets out in the sun
Out in the yard with the worms in the dark
Beneath the green, beneath my feet
With the sounds of this small city murmurring around me
The smell of clean, of apple, of breathing earth
The memory of love pressing, sighing, sobbing
Airing out the rhythm of rising and falling
Of giving in and letting go
And rising again
Finding just one edge to secure
Wood on cloth on cord
Forming a waving wall, a flag, a sail
Catch me hanging sheets out in the sun
Exposed, unveiled and holy
by J.B. Rowell
The mommy poem hangs
on a line between two birch trees
overlooked unless you happen to be
opening the wooden pins to let it fall.
Or maybe a photographer attentive to taut
fabrics in wind, lit by its own sun.
by Ruth Moose
All our life
so much laundry;
each day’s doing or not
flows off and away
to blend with other sins
of this world. Each day
begins in new skin,
blessed by the elements
charged to take us
out again to do or undo
what’s been assigned.
From socks to shirts
the selves we shed
lift off the line
as if they own
a life apart
from the one we offer.
There is joy in clean laundry.
All is forgiven in water, sun
and air. We offer our day’s deeds
to the blue-eyed sky, with soap and prayer,
our arms up, then lowered in supplication.
Reprinted from “Making the Bed,” Main Street Rag Press, 2004, by permission of the author. Copyright © 1995 by Ruth Moose.
“We are the Lonely”
by John Prine (excerpted lyrics)
Down the hall upstairs from me
Theres a girl I swear I never see
I hear the ringing of her phone
She must live up there all alone
She hangs her clothes out on the line
Theyre hanging there right next to mine
And if the wind should blow just right
She could be in my arms tonight
Laundry Day at Casey Farm
by Heather Christie, Grade 8, Davisville Middle School
The wash hangs on the line
as this blustery day unfolds
in the month of May
just after the sun has risen.
As this blustery day unfolds,
a towel flies off the line
just after the sun has risen
and no one is around to catch it.
A towel flies off the line.
It is caught by the pre-dawn breeze
and no one is around to catch it
as it blows away from the fields.
It is caught by the pre-dawn breeze,
that single solitary leaf,
as it blows away from the fields
falling, falling, falling onto the towel.
A single solitary leaf
in the month of May,
falling, falling, falling onto the towel
while the wash hangs on the line.
by Enid Huws Jones
The Friend. November 24, 1989
I was sad to read, in the weekend edition of one of the national newspapers most favoured by Quakers, that the tumble-drier was my second-best friend. Not that any woman who has worked her way throug several infancies in the days before disposable napkins will find herself in unity with those idealists who hiss at the name of the washing-machine. But we had already worked through the infancies before I had my first ‘automatic’, and that was when, in the grimy hard-water area of central London, the customs of the time obliged me to produce daily, five times a week, four approximately snow-white shirts.
In the following decade, blessed with the clean air, soft water, wind and fitful sunshine of the Lake District, I returned to intermediate technology. If my best friend is the washing-machine (which I hope it is not) my second-best friend must be the clothes line: which Shakespeare might have considered a piece of somewhat advanced technology, as he was used to ‘the white sheet bleaching on the hedge’.
These thoughts arose as we sat eating our sandwiches outside a Lake District pub. In the open yard of an old but prosperous-looking hotel over the way a woman was hanging out the washing, combining, as my grandmother and mother taught me, domestic pride with personal modesty: a row of fautless towels in front, the bits and pieces behind. Wherever we went that day we saw washing resplendent. Breakfasts and high teas now come out of the freezer, there seems only one place left where you can get a pot of tea to wash down your home-made sandwiches, but at least the drying greens are the same. Except that this was Friday. Even my mother, who idiosyncratically washed a day late because a woman deserved a day off after serving and clearing Sunday dinner and tea, would not have left out a line out later than Wednesday. It was wound up, wrist to elbow, and hung beside the pegbag in the scullery until the following week.
Back in the city we were regretting that the people in a new row of houses had to hang out washing and pursue other garden activities in full view of passers-by on a busy road. ‘They ought not to be allowed to hang out washing!’ a neighbour exclaimed. She made it sound like a piece of vandalism. More and more people, it seems, are mildly accepting the prohibition of a clothes line as a condition of residence. How many tumble-driers have churned through this long radiant summer, adding their mite of justification for the building of power stations? (‘We mustn’t let the lights go out, must we, ladies?’, we of the Women’s Institute were rhetorically and irrelevantly asked over a cup of tea at Sellafield.)
Winter comes on: in most of our centrally heated houses there is a corner for a clothes horse, or, as they call it in more sexist-speaking areas, a maiden; alternatively, the pulley of a clothes-airer creaks comfortingly on a kitchen ceiling. Well, most of humankind have no central heating and not even a kitchen: certainly not a tumble-drier though mercifully a lot of them have sunshine.
Forgive me, Friends, that my talk is ‘all of mangling and clear-starching’, which Charles Lamb long ago thought typified the stunted imagination of the urban poor. We are rich, but as we bend over our energy-consuming gadgets, in that oddest of phrases keeping up with the Joneses, our stunted imagination neglects the gifts of the sun and wind. And rain: for it is raining on the garden at last. I must set up the clothes-horse and fetch in the Jones washing.
Written after my parents had already moved from the Lake District to a flat in York, the penulitmate stage of their retirement years. My mother had been active in the campaign against the Sellafield nuclear power station on the edge of the Lake District. There is an abnormal percentage of children suffering from leukaemia and deformities in this area. She gave evidence in court.
by Donald Levering
Clotheslines are charged with news
of the world; across fences they
broadcast rumors of storm,
garden lore, notes on migrating
shadows, and, in human tones,
local romance and scandal.
Each sheet’s a revival tent;
from the dark parts of the body
come bras, jockstraps, threadbare
panties—all come for an airing
of the sins of grime and sweat,
each a witness to the sun.
Page by page the family diaries
are shamelessly hung on the line
sheets of monthly blood stains,
semen streaked underwear,
nothing to hide.
In the dark rotations of driers
pantslegs incestuously entwine,
while outside, windblown arms
wave across yards like neighbors,
and the lightened laundry is lifted
from the line like glad tidings.
Clotheslines don’t do clothes
by john tiong chunghoo
not do clothes
here is hung the fun
of the whole family
affords a blessing,
a breeze –
opens the way
for the whole family
to strut, boggie
sister’s lace shawl
goes up in a straight line
turns hand of wind
flutters up, down
a choreographer showing
the way to swing
with hands, legs
and enviable physique
brother’s new jeans
well, like him refuses to
though pegged –
as is mom controlled –
left, right, right, left
the leggy pant turns
one leg ultimately got stucked to the line
if only they have taken off the tack
it (the pant) would have flown
right next door, into the heart of his fancied girl
dad’s tie does a non stop
flight, like his inspired mind
never at a moment, stops working
mom’s long skirt, it swings
in the most gracious fashion
as if it owns the whole field
and the bras, wow, do they look obscene?
not at all, innocently, they fly
a ballet dancer’s frilly skirt twirls
granny too joins in the fiesta
of colours, shape and style
her blouse with its heavy pads
maintain an edge like her
without giving way to the wind
it hardly even tilts
by Marilyn K. Walker
Miss Polly was a spinster
who lived a sheltered life
until a former classmate
asked her to be his wife.
But after they were married
she realized he was lewd.
It truly shocked Miss Polly
to know that he slept nude.
She wondered if her neighbors
observed her husband’s ways
and noticed no pajamas
were hung on laundry days.
Miss Polly went out shopping
and had a plan in mind!
She’d buy some men’s pajamas-
the brightest she could find.
Now when she meets her neighbors
she holds her head up high
just knowing those pajamas
hang on her line to dry.