The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

“I Wash the Shirt” is a prose poem composed of nineteen lines that vary greatly in length. It is a very short work, but, like many of Anna wir’s poems, it is rooted deeply in her private life. The author describes washing the shirt of her recently deceased father, a task so personal that wir kept the poem to herself for several years; it was only published posthumously by her daughter. Although it can be appreciated on its own, the reader who understands something of wir’s life and circumstances will see more meaning in it than others will. In many of her poems, wir depicts her father as a strong, gentle man who took pride in his people’s culture and who labored continually to depict that heritage in his art despite the lifetime of poverty and struggle he endured to do so. This image is continued in “I Wash the Shirt.” He was a painter who specialized in religious and historical themes, and the title refers to wir washing the shirt he wore while working in his studio. Since he did not wear the shirt outside, he merely asked his daughter to dry it on the wood-burning stove that heated his workshop rather than iron it. For wir, the shirt has strong associations with her father’s daily toil as well as with his passion and pride; even its scent, as she puts it into the wash water, reminds her of him.

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wir compares washing the shirt with the other times she washed her father’s clothing, which always smelled of his perspiration. She has performed the same task since girlhood, but while she previously laid the shirt for him to find on the stove, now she simply prepares to put it away. Once it is washed, it no longer conveys the familiar sense of her father’s presence, and she realizes that in one more small way she has lost another aspect of him. His paintings will be left, but they are a public and sterile (if beautiful) side of his activity. The living, breathing, perspiring man whose love and effort brought that beauty into existence is gone forever and so is his scent. She also suggests elsewhere that although he labored intensely on his paintings, they could never adequately convey his feelings. In “I Wash the Shirt,” death has removed the devoted artist and father, leaving only a shirt and some oil paintings. What could easily be a grotesque meditation on soiled laundry, seemingly inappropriate in the face of death, becomes instead a musing on how irreplaceable wir’s father was, not because of his paintings but because of his unique presence and personality.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

As in most of her poetry, wir makes no attempt in “I Wash the Shirt” to sound “poetic.” Her translator, Czesaw Miosz, discusses wir’s desire to write poetry in which the ideas would show through clearly, unimpeded by any noticeable attempt at style or verbal sophistication. She specialized in very short works, often termed “miniatures” by critics. These poems, by concentrating the reader’s attention on one or two images in only a few lines, strengthen the impact of those images. In “I Wash the Shirt,” as in many of her works, wir succeeds particularly well. Her language is purely conversational, as in the third and fourth lines: “The shirt smells of sweat. I remember/ that sweat from my childhood.” Just as the image of a sweaty shirt is neither traditionally poetic nor even aesthetically pleasing, the language also avoids ornamentation and communicates its forceful emotion through simple, almost blunt wording. Because of wir’s approach, the image of the woman washing a shirt as she recalls more than six decades of her father’s presence, now lost forever, is haunting.

Such writing depends upon its thought and subject matter (in this case loss and death) for its poetic power, and this strength is particularly found in the novelty of finding the smell of stale clothing a powerful reminder of a beloved parent, the sort of reminder most people are not likely to prize or even to think about until the loved one is gone. In keeping with her concept of poetry, wir transforms a mundane chore into a moment of profound insight and grief. She smells the scent of the almost obsessive effort that he put into his work rather than the scent of the paintings themselves, which only smell like oil paint. What survives—the paintings—are only artifacts, not part of life. The sweat recalls his spirit, his concentration and patience, and his compulsion to keep the Polish heritage alive. In washing the shirt, she realizes she has lost not only a physical smell but also the sense of her father’s presence, the body that produced the perspiration. The simple three-and four-syllable lines (“I destroy it/ forever”) evoke the finality of loss more powerfully than most traditionally written laments would. The alteration of her father from living man to mere memory is complete: Although his paintings remain, the sense of his active and moving body, the passion and feeling of the man who sweated while he worked, the influence he had in his daughter’s life, and his love are all gone forever.

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