Laun­dry po­ems re­veal the ex­tra­or­di­nary within the or­di­nary

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Rose­mary Gor­ing

rite about what you know” used to be the rst com­mand­ment of creative writ­ing lessons. For most women, for much of his­tory, what they’ve known most in­ti­mately has been the home, with its never-still wheel of do­mes­tic ac­tiv­ity: sex and shop­ping, cook­ing and pol­ish­ing, and bring­ing up weans in be­tween. I bet count­less imag­i­na­tive wives and spin­sters have short-cir­cuited their lit­er­ary am­bi­tions by de­cid­ing that hearth-side tales were too dull (or too graphic) for pub­lic con­sump­tion, thereby depriv­ing the read­ing world of a harem of nov­el­ists and po­ets, some of whom would doubt­less have been ev­ery bit as good as their less clois­tered male coun­ter­parts.

A de­light­ful new col­lec­tion of po­ems shows that in fact the most mun­dane of house­hold ac­tiv­i­ties can be in­spi­ra­tional and rev­e­la­tory. Even those tied to the kitchen sink can add to the ranks of good lit­er­a­ture – to No­bel prize stan­dard, in­deed, as con­trib­u­tors to this col­lec­tion tes­tify. So too can those sons, lovers and hus­bands who have ob­served the wash­er­folk or helped them fold the sheets (see afore­men­tioned No­bel prize-win­ners).

Wash­ing Lines, a slim an­thol­ogy of works cho­sen by Janie Hex­tall and Bar­bara Mc­Naught and il­lus­trated with ex­quis­ite wood­cuts (Lau­tus Press, £10), is re­fresh­ing in more than a de­ter­gent way. Gath­er­ing work by writ­ers across the ages, from Homer to Hugo Wil­liams, it came about when the ed­i­tors dis­cov­ered they shared a love of laun­dry. That may sound odd, as does the fact they had each been gath­er­ing po­ems about wash­ing and, more un­ex­pect­edly, had com­piled photo al­bums of wash­ing lines across the world. And yet one can see the at­trac­tion in record­ing this most pub­lic of pri­vate rev­e­la­tions.

If danc­ing is, as Ge­orge Bernard Shaw said, a ver­ti­cal ex­pres­sion of a hor­i­zon­tal de­sire, then wash­ing is a hor­i­zon­tal dis­play of ver­ti­cal be­hav­iour. Acrylic or cash­mere, jeans or jod­phurs, Pri­mark or Moschino, our clothes are as ex­pres­sive of who and what we are as our faces or our words. And in which other realm of life apart from a strip club would we will­ingly re­veal our most in­ti­mate garb for ev­ery­one to see?

As one of the po­ems here vividly il­lus­trates, what’s on your line can be a mat­ter of pride or shame. The neigh­bour­hood watch is on the mind of a newly mar­ried house­wife in Mar­i­lyn K Walker’s Clothes­line De­ceit. Star­tled to dis­cover that her hus­band sleeps naked, she buys a de­coy pair of py­ja­mas to adorn her wash­ing line.

There’s humour in these po­ems, but the pre­dom­i­nant note is re ec­tive, of­ten wist­ful. Flap­ping clothes are ci­phers for their own­ers, a spur to thoughts of ab­sence and loss, and more than one wife or hus­band here muses on their loved ones, past and present, as their gar­ments dance in the breeze. Sea­mus Heaney re­calls early mar­ried life in The Clothes Shrine: “It was a whole new sweet­ness/ In the early days to nd/ Light white blouses/ On a see-through ny­lon line/ Dripdry­ing in the bath­room …” Oth­ers nd in the pro­cesses of scrub­bing, man­gling, pin­ning and fold­ing a spir­i­tual re­newal they wish they could con­jure for them­selves.

If you think about it, the rich­est source of in­spi­ra­tion is al­ways likely to be or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, which, as writ­ers know, is never or­di­nary at all. And when it comes to es­sen­tial chores, we’re all crea­tures of habit. Around these habits the hu­man per­son­al­ity grows, meta­phys­i­cally tak­ing on the shape of what­ever repet­i­tive act we’re per­form­ing. Po­etry is ide­ally suited to di­vin­ing the deeper mean­ing of com­mon­place rit­u­als.

The sur­prise there­fore is not that two laun­dry buffs have com­piled a col­lec­tion like this, but that it is so slim. Ei­ther laun­dry has been con­sid­ered too mun­dane, even for po­ets, or there’s still a bas­ket­ful of other work out there to be pegged to the page of an­other vol­ume. How­ever hard they or oth­ers search, though, they’ll never nd any­thing ner than Pablo Neruda’s Ode To Iron­ing, re­pro­duced here: “Linen, can­vas and cal­ico come back/ from com­bat in the laun­dry/ and from the light a dove is born/ pu­rity comes back from the soap suds.”

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