Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

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wir was affected all her life by the death and destruction she witnessed as a young woman during World War II. For her, life itself, with all its processes, attractive and otherwise, became compelling. Her poetry generally reflects an intense interest in the physical, simple acts of existence such as breathing and walking and in the everyday sights, sounds, and smells of urban streets and crowded apartment buildings. For such a poet, the scent of a deceased man’s perspiration can evoke a strong sense of his identity. wir sometimes uses breathing as a symbol of life, strength, and joy in her poems. In “I Wash the Shirt,” however, breathing, coupled with a simple task performed for the last time, evokes grief. For wir, that scent, so familiar to her from almost seven decades with her father, identifies only one body in the world. Since that body is gone, she feels she destroys a remnant of the man by washing his shirt. Breathing and perspiring are essential functions of human life and are thus tokens of continued living; the poet’s father, who no longer lives, neither breathes nor works. Only relatively odorless and inanimate paintings remain of his vision and the struggle he underwent to express it. However much these paintings reflect his love of beauty and of his homeland, they do not have the physical, animal presence his missing body once had, and the poet will never have the comfort of his presence again. In other poems, she writes about how he painted, working painstakingly and correcting himself as he went. This process, with its great self-discipline and perseverance, was the true mark of her father’s personality and feelings. It is thus her father’s process of painting rather than the paintings themselves that she loves and misses.

Such a theme is typical of wir’s work, and it is true to the experience of many people who lose loved ones. Those who grieve often find that mundane tasks and ordinary objects trigger the deepest feelings of sorrow. In the case of “I Wash the Shirt,” wir’s grief is caused by doing a very familiar task that she will never perform again. There will be no point to laying the shirt on top of the wood-burning stove for her father because he will not wear it to work anymore. Just as small, commonplace realizations often evoke the profoundest sadness, a short poem in everyday language suggests wir’s deep loneliness and sadness for her father and the stunning finality of death, which can make even the act of doing laundry seem like another instance of destruction and loss.